Wednesday, December 31. 2008
If people default to giving their children whatever education system they themselves grew up with, then the trend is even more pronounced in spiritual education. We want our children to believe what we believe, and to value what we value . . . regardless of whether those values have really panned out for us. I was always puzzled by the term "faith of our fathers," as if the fact that our ancestors believed it should have any significance for what I believe. It doesn't make logical sense, but it does make psychological sense. Our parents are the template from which we build our model of the world and our model of human relationships. If it was good enough for Mom and Dad, and good enough for me, then by God it's gonna be good enough for Junior.
I think we are susceptible to the same errors the Spanish parents are making about their kids education, in the spiritual realm. We take the kids to church, figuring that we want to give them some kind of baseline experience for spiritual life, but in fact our models for what makes a good spiritual education are completely lacking. Maybe they get what we got – catechism, a sense of reverence and community, a bunch of stories that are both wondrous and confusing – but is that what they really need? It might be the spiritual equivalent of the Spanish kids memorizing 18th century poems – it might look like they're learning something, but it's not what they really need.
Unfortunately, I am perpetually perplexed when it comes to the spiritual education of my children. I do not really regret having a "churched" upbringing, and yet I spent years and years unraveling the confusion and anxiety brought on by my early church experiences. The only thing I can thank the church for is giving me an unsolvable koan to chew on throughout my adolescence: how can people say this is the most important thing in the universe, and yet live the way that they live? How can so much of this stuff intuitively feel correct, and yet logically make no sense at all? Maybe that was all an important part of my spiritual development . . . and then again, maybe it was so much noise. Do I really want to baptize my children into this confusion?
The primary reason my kids are in a Waldorf school (aside from an excellent education) is that the Waldorf teachers seemed to have a pretty good notion of how to nurture the spiritual capacities of children without getting into the thorny issues of theology. I figured that bought me a few years to continue working out this question: what can we give our children to aid their spiritual development? Right now, my answer to that question is not that different from run-of-the-mill parenting advice: keep them out of trouble, keep them basically sane and sociable, and trust they will be able to find their own way.
Monday, December 29. 2008
Sunday, December 28. 2008
I heard a story on NPR about Spain's struggles with their education system. The story lead-in segued from Europe's overall financial crisis to the particulars of Spain's difficulty in staging an economic recovery, primarily because they lacked the skilled workforce necessary to cultivate new industries. Critics say the education system is based almost entirely on rote learning and memorization, with almost no attention paid to reading comprehension or critical thinking. That critique is supported by the fact that Spanish students score the lowest among Western European countries for reading comprehension, mathematics, and science. The teachers say most parents expect the school system to drill their students with facts, just as they were drilled when they were in school. That lopsided notion was apparent when NPR interviewed a principal, who claimed that his school didn't require rote memorization, but then immediately showed off their students' ability by asking some kids on the playground to recite an 18th-century poem. "A very long poem," said the reporter. The principle, and another parent interviewed, thought the problem was that they just weren't doing enough study of classic Spanish literature, and that they needed to start the students earlier and work them harder.
I'm surprised and gratified that someone thought to look at how other countries were dealing with their education – I had not heard anything like this since the press noticed a study of what made Finnish students so successful. I suspect we can learn as much from a bad example as a good one. We might scoff at what seems like an obvious flaw in Spain's education system – "look, the test scores show it's not working, you're teaching the wrong thing" – but then again the reaction of American teachers and schools to critiques of their methods sound a lot like those of the Spanish teachers: "We're just not doing enough of what we're doing, we need more money, we need to start kids earlier."
I was also struck by the difference in perceptions of what a successful education should be. The average Spaniard evidently has a pretty crude notion of what it means to be educated: if an eight-year-old can recite rote knowledge, that must mean they learned something. That's what they grew up with, and by golly it's going to be good enough for their kids, too. I wonder if we have similar holes in our own cultural perception of education. I imagine that we're proudly holding up our SAT scores, while some Finnish teacher is shaking her head sadly and saying, "Yes, you taught them to read, but did you noticed you killed their joy for reading? You gave them the skills, but you never taught them how to work collaboratively in a group. How can you possibly call that education?" How ironic would it be, if we struggled to perfect our education system, and then discovered we were dead wrong about what education should be?
Saturday, December 27. 2008
I drove the same VW Golf for about thirteen years. When I finally broke down (only slightly ahead of the car) and bought a brand-new car, I found myself marveling at advances in features that others had already long ago accepted as normal and had passed into unconsciousness. Cup holders – neat! An interior button to pop the trunk – how cool is that! Power windows – well, I had seen those before, of course, but now they are in my car! It's mildly embarrassing to find yourself geeked out over features that are over a decade old. It's like listening to an octogenarian effuse over the miracle of e-mail. But my tech-savvy is usually overpowered by my sense of thrift. I might buy a state of the art digital camera, but then I keep it for ten years.
So, I shouldn't be surprised that I once again find myself surrounded by amazing features that are old news:
Friday, December 26. 2008
One item in my stocking this year was Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers. Literary myth holds that Ernest Hemingway – often acknowledged as the king of minimalist style – was challenged to write a six-word story, and he produced: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Six-word stories are a now a haiku's haiku, an exercise in conciseness so easy and yet so challenging that it has drawn attention from accomplished writers and neophytes alike. I've known about the form for a while. A couple years ago Wired Magazine ran a fun six-word story collection with a star-studded list of contributors, especially sci-fi greats like David Brin ("Metrosexuals notwithstanding, quiche still lacks something."), Orson Scot Card ("The baby's blood type? Human, mostly."), Joss Whedon ("Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.") and Steve Meretsky ("He read his obituary with confusion.")
This book of memoirs also had a number of recognizable names in it, though most would only be known to a fraction of the readers. I'm glad the editors decided not to annotate any of the contributions, and let readers discover for themselves the connections between the memoirs and their subjects. I was surprised and gratified to notice Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist of whom I'm a fan. His entry was simple and descriptive: "Struggled with how the mind works." After reading the entire book, I thought it was a credit to his life and his writing that he could sum up his work so well. You have to have a singular purpose, or at least a singular direction or style, for six words to be sufficient.
The best contributions (IMHO) were from the top-drawer professional wordsmiths. Stephen Colbert, political satirist, nailed both his content and his style: "Well, I thought it was funny." So did Roy Blount, Jr., a Southern story-teller and humorist: "Maybe you had to be there." Honorable mention for cleverness goes to Jimmy Wales, creator of the Wikipedia: "Yes, you can edit this biography."
The rest of the entries were interesting, but usually not for their individual merit. I was curious about the patterns I saw; there are only so many approaches one can take to the task, and I was intrigued by the repetition of certain themes. Probably the most common theme was regret, with lots of contributions chronicling the dark side of life:
"Fell in love. Married. Divorced. Repeat."
"Crappy parents killed my self-esteem."
"Thought I would have more impact."
The complaints and regrets were only slightly outnumbered by pithy, shallow expressions of joy. For instance, from the king of pithy and shallow, Deepak Chopra: "Danced in fields of infinite possibility." Or this: "Wandering imagination opens doors to paradise." You get the idea. After reading four or five of them, with no detail to sustain them, and no truth to back them up, they all run together in a boring blur.
Slightly more interesting were the contributions that zoomed in on life-changing events. For instance:
"After eighteen years, sold my book."
"Running away: best decision I made."
"I auditioned. I got the part."
I think I liked those the best. They were distinctive and personal and spoke to what mattered most for these people. I occasionally qvelled at simple, honest, unpretentious summations of family happiness. For instance: "Found true love after nine months." There were a lot of those, too, but their honesty made up for their repetition.
Of course, you can't read such things without trying to compose your own. It would be a great exercise for a Self Knowledge Symposium meeting. I jokingly proposed one for my wife, who is pregnant with our third child, and anxious about it: "Three may have been too many." For myself . . . I haven't come up with anything I'm happy with. The simplest might be, "Sought enlightenment. Made software. Now writing." That doesn't have much punch, which doesn't bode well for me.
Thursday, December 25. 2008
Today is Christmas. The traditional news cycle demands a frothy story about the best gifts, a tongue-in-check column about how to cope with your family, and a feel-good story about people spreading cheer to those less fortunate. This news cycle is as inevitable as Chipmunk music in malls.
Except this year. We have no stories of spreading cheer to those less fortunate, because for some reason everyone feels like they are the "less fortunate" this time around. The rich have seen their wealth evaporate in a financial crisis and/or scandal; businessmen are seeing profits dwindling; working class are losing their jobs and sometimes their homes. Typical fare in the news: "How to Say Goodbye to your home on Christmas". "In Hard Times, Houses of Worship Turn to Chapter 11 in Book of Bankruptcy." "Little holiday cheer" has been repeated in so many headlines and lead-ins that, were the Grinch's heart still two sizes too small, he would rejoice. "They're finding out now that no Christmas is coming!"
Where are the Whos? I am standing on the top of Mt. Crumpet, looking across the land, desperate to find someone who still remembers how this story is supposed to end. Even if we lose #$@%^ everything, we still have cause to sing in the morning. I bring you good tidings of great joy: life has a meaning which transcends our material fortunes.
Wednesday, December 24. 2008
When the holidays come, I always feel the urge to "keep Christ in Christmas" – to actually teach my young children the spiritual significance of the occasion. For me, the holiday represents the coming of grace into the world. I always get a little thrill when I hear the words of the angel: "I bring you good tidings of great joy." The sense that God is at work in the world, that the highest is somehow moving among the lowest, and conspiring to make something great happen . . . that's the Christmas spirit to me.
But then I sit down with the Bible, and try to prepare myself to tell the story of Jesus' birth to my eight-year-old and my four-year-old. I'm thinking, how hard can this be? Everyone knows the image of a cute little baby lying in a manger, surrounded by animals and kvelling shepherds and kings. What could be cuddlier than that?
But then I read the story, and I find that all the plot-points are premised on some seriously adult themes. The story begins with Mary betrothed to Joseph, and Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant, and is planning to call off the wedding. You can't even begin to get into the story without having to explain the facts of life, the prospect of infidelity and betrayal and unwed mothers. How do you gloss over that?
Then you have the whole narrative arc of the wise men, the kings seeking out Jesus. That whole narrative hinges on the evil king Herod trying to find this new messiah and kill him, and concludes with the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. What, exactly, is this supposed to teach our children? That if God really likes you, he'll tip you off when the bust is coming down? That if you're not the Son of God, the Almighty is going to let evil kings skewer you in your crib?
Don't get me wrong – it's a great story, full of intrigue, suspense, interpersonal tension, faith and doubt . . . it's just not a children's story. And once you sanitize it from all the adult themes, you are left with just the one scene of the Nativity: mangers and donkeys and camels and a baby. (Well, maybe two scenes – you've got the angel coming to shepherds as well. That's pretty clean.) Maybe that one image is enough. Obviously, it IS enough, because our culture has been able to sell a lot of Nativity scenes and make Christmas a child-centered holiday for decades. And I suppose it's peanuts to sanitize the Christmas story, compared to, say, Easter, which is chock-a-block with betrayal, political intrigue, torture, and capital punishment. But the Nativity seems to lose a lot of its meaning, if you don't know how Mary and Joseph came to be there, and the kings as well.
Tuesday, December 23. 2008
Our flight to Philadelphia was delayed for three hours, so I spent a lot of time on Friday looking at people. I saw a lot of military uniforms of every kind: Marines in dress blues, Army enlisted men in light tan camos and stylish rucksacks, infantry sergeants with braids and stars. My wife comes from a military family, and given my conservative and hawkish nature, I was inclined to look upon these men and consider them heroes. But every time I did look at them, the only word that came to mind was "youth." They were all, every single one of them, so young that I almost hesitated to call them men. Not a gray hair among them, and most of them no more than teenagers. You hear the generals in war movies talk about "our boys," and I used to think that it was just a figure of speech; now I see it as literal truth.
The only thing that made them seem different from boys was their seriousness. They did not smile or laugh. Some stood erect and quiet, as if awaiting orders. Most sat hunched over, iPods in their ears, pecking away grimly on cell phones. Maybe music and games were just acceptable tranquilizers, the usual means of tuning out thoughts and dulling pain in the face of long boredom and stress.
A USO volunteer had a little table set up in the middle of one terminal, with a big banner with some good wish for the military personnel. "Until everyone comes home," it said. The young woman stopped anyone in military dress and shook their hands. The men would smile shyly, nod, and walk on. No one was effusive, but neither were they dismissive. It seemed like something was going on in those little greetings. I wish I could know what they were thinking. Perhaps it was relief: "Thank God there are still civilians who know there is a war going on." Or maybe it was rueful: "Lady, you have no idea what I have seen." I was touched, somehow, by this tiny display, so conspicuous in its simplicity. A human being was reaching out to these young boys with the experiences of men, not lauding them or praising them, but simply touching them, as if to say, "You belong here. You are still one of us." I think, perhaps, they really needed it.
Thursday, December 18. 2008
Tomorrow I will be getting on a plane with my two sons to go to Philadelphia. We will be visiting my twin brother and his family, whom we rarely see more than once year, if that. I won't try to write while I'm away -- I'm leaving the computer behind, as a deliberate part of making sure work doesn't follow me on vacation. But I'll pick up writing again on December 23, when I'm back in town.
Wednesday, December 17. 2008
Over ten years ago I read First Things First, Steven Covey's time-management follow-on to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey had the perfect diagnosis for my condition: urgency addiction. I lived my life in a fundamentally reactive manner, always tending to the most urgent matters, regardless of their ultimate importance. I spent all my time putting out fires, using the thrill of responding to emergencies to blot out my anxiety over a lack of direction. The last ten years have been a long, slogging battle against that trend in my character.
I managed to take some ground when I created a schedule for myself, and explicitly made time for important-but-not-urgent tasks: writing, reading, exercise, sleep, financial management, family time. I created routines that defied urgency and ultimately reduced it. That much was all good.
Having made some basic changes in my own behavior (a remarkable accomplishment for someone pushing 40) I was inspired to embark on a writing career. I set the wheels in motion to gradually phase out of my software consulting job into professional writing. And that's when I realized that I had barely scratched the surface of my urgency addiction.
Getting out of my IT job required me to do something I could never, ever do before: say 'no' to my customers. I had trained myself to be a super-reactive, on-the-spot problem solver, and my customers had come to expect that as well. My greatest energy and productivity was activated when someone would come to me and say, "We need your help. Only you can do this." And that love of urgency has consistently plowed under any attempt to develop my writing career. I have been able to rededicate myself to writing every day, and reading the things I should be reading, but that's just keeping my writing on life support; it's not real progress toward real goals. A year after announcing my attention, I have accomplished many other significant life goals (move my mother-in-law, serve the school community, etc.), but when it comes to a writing career, I am no further along than when I started.
Ok. I give up. I am powerless before my urgency addiction. The only way I will develop a writing career is find ways to give it its own urgency. I need an editor, or several editors, who will call me to say, "I need 500 words on so-and-so by Friday, can you do that?" That, or a genuine business concern that requires constant production. Until I get a critical mass of people in my life demanding that I write, instead of demanding other things, this won't get off the ground.
I walked into the Barnes & Noble the other day, loaded with gift cards that were part of a fund-raiser for the school. Out of habit I walked to computer section, but I drifted right through it, feeling nothing. For now, at least, that part of me was burned out. I walked to writing section, and pulled two books on the business of writing non-fiction. "They're probably outdated," I thought, "but I've got to start somewhere."
(Page 1 of 3, totaling 26 entries) » next page
Syndicate This Blog