Parental Choice

In a recent article in USA Today following up Mitt  Romney’s political gaffe in Philadelphia — sitting in a classroom in a charter school that stresses small classes insisting that smaller classes don’t help the kids — the writer makes the broader point that Parental choice is the mantra of politicians who try to deflect attention from the failure of states to provide all schoolchildren with an equal educational opportunity. It’s the alternative many Republicans hawk in response to demands for a stepped up campaign to fix, not abandon, failing public schools. It’s the code words of politicians who offer some children an escape hatch out of troubled schools, while leaving many others behind.

Readers of my blogs know how concerned I am about improving education in this country at all levels. I take a back seat to no one who is throwing stones at a system that is clearly failing our kids while so many of those who try to teach in and administer the schools pretend there is no problem. But my stone-throwing is an attempt to get someone’s attention, not to bring down the house. I have repeatedly listed the steps we should take to remedy the situation, knowing while I do this that my faint, small voice will not be heard — but also knowing that hope springs eternal.

In any event, the attempts by Republicans like Romney to, in effect, abandon the public schools in the name of “parental choice” is simply making things worse. The answer is not home-schooling, or vouchers, or private schools, or charter schools. The answer is to address the problem head-on. And this means that those in education must stop pretending there is no problem, dismissing the fact that Finland has superb schools on the grounds that they don’t teach minorities (not true, by the way), or insisting that standardized tests prove nothing because the student populations these days include greater proportions of minority students than fifty years ago (also not true), or whatever. I have heard all the excuses, and they are lame. The fact remains that American public schools are failing the children they are supposed to teach. As was determined in Massachusetts not long ago, many of the teachers themselves cannot pass the eighth-grade-level tests devised to determine whether their students are learning. And that’s the heart of the matter.

We now draw our public school teachers from the bottom of the college populations because we don’t pay them what they are worth and teachers’ colleges that require outside certification insist on methods courses that turn off the brighter students. In saying this, I note quickly that there are exceptions, outstanding teachers who made it through those colleges and who do a masterful job with little pay and no support from their administrators — or the kids’ parents. There are always exceptions to generalizations, but this generalization stands anyway. The current condition of our public education system is a national embarrassment. We must start by reforming teacher-preparation and allow that if we are to entice the brighter young people (who desperately need work) into teaching we need to pay them well and support them in what they try to do. As parents we must pay the piper and we cannot expect teachers to raise our children; their job is to teach them how to use their minds and they should be paid well for a difficult job.

As I say, I have developed these suggestions (and many more) in earlier blogs and anyone who wants to know what I have said can simply search my blog pages for “education” and find much more than they probably want to read! But the point is that we can still rescue the public schools if we make a concerted effort to deal with the situation honestly, realizing that it will cost money and will also require major changes in the way we now do things. But under the guise of “parental choice,” the alternative of abandoning public schools altogether, which is clearly Romney’s alternative, is unacceptable: there are many successful adults who have been schooled in our nation’s public schools — and there can still be more in the future.

Trumping Donald

Conservative writer George Will is having it out with Billionaire Donald Trump so keep your head down! The verbal fisticuffs and name-calling have already started to fly. On ABC News, George Will wondered aloud why on earth Mitt Romney would want Trump’s endorsement, saying, in part,

I do not understand the cost benefit here,” . . .. “The costs are clear. The benefit — what voter is going to vote for him because he is seen with Donald Trump? The cost of appearing with this bloviating ignoramus is obvious, it seems to me. Donald Trump is redundant evidence that if your net worth is high enough, your IQ can be very low and you can still intrude into American politics.”

Trump then tweeted back, calling Will “dumb.” I recall higher-level verbal abuse on the playground as a kid — though none of my friends ever used a word like “bloviating.” Come to think of it, none of my adult friends have ever used that word, either. In fact, I had to look it up: it means Trump is a bit of a wind bag, so there! Take that, Donald! But George Will is a wordsmith, and Donald Trump is. . . well, Donald Trump: pretty much what is wrong with this country — a self-absorbed, short-sighted, greedy, raper of the earth, who enjoys manipulating other people.

I don’t read George Will regularly, though I maintain a high opinion of him because of his pointing out early on in the Iraq war that if Weapons of Mass Destruction were never found there would be no possible moral grounds for that war. I agreed with him at the time and thought it a courageous thing to say, given his conservative credentials. “W” was at the height of his popularity at the time. Mr. Will would seem to have integrity, though I admit I never heard him mention W.M.D. again after it was clear to the world that there never were such things in Iraq. It might have been appropriate for him to ask aloud why on earth we invaded that country in the first place. But we have to take what crumbs we can get from the tables of the great and not-so-great.

Trump, on the other hand, has never struck me as much more than a tiny man with a smirk and a large idea of himself under a mass of hair that always seems about to take off. The man still insists that Obama is not an American citizen, for Pete’s sake! How can anyone take him seriously? He is now involved in the golf game on a grand scale, building expensive golf courses around the world (all with his name attached of course), appearing on the Golf Channel with some regularity and on national TV as well, promoting himself as usual and sticking in my craw. But I can always turn off the TV when he appears, as I learned long ago. In any event, you have to marvel at his way with words. In the “debate” with Will, Trump jumped on Twitter to lash out against Will, writing that “George Will may be the dumbest (and most overrated) political commentator of all time. If the Republicans listen to him, they will lose.”

What we have here is a flyweight flailing away at a light-heavyweight. My money is on George Will in this fight, and on Obama in November — no matter who does or does not endorse Romney.

Who Are The Conservatives?

It has always struck me as strange that those who call themselves “conservative” are so often violently opposed to environmentalism. They love to throw stones at the “tree huggers,” even though the tree huggers are also conservatives, which is to say those who want to conserve what is important and beautiful. The stone-throwers are simply what my thesis adviser at Northwestern called “dollar conservatives.” These people just want to hang on to their money and watch it grow.

This all goes back to the loose ways we use words, a theme I have visited before in my blogs. And one of the loosest words is certainly “conservative.” There are a great many types of conservatives among whom I might number myself on occasion. Like George Eliot I enjoy it when “reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.” I am indeed eager to conserve tradition and the classical works of the human mind; I am no devotee of progress for its own sake. Such people, I am given to understand, are called “intellectual conservatives,” as distinct from “dollar conservatives.” The latter want to lower taxes by cutting social programs, such as education, environment, energy, and science, and even veterans’ benefits while at the same time increasing “defense” spending which already comprises 58% of this nation’s “Discretionary Spending” and is a misnomer if there ever was one. I hesitate to suggest that it is possible that dollar conservatives are more interested in conserving the contents of their own pocketbooks than they are the nation at large.

That is, those who seem preoccupied about lowering the taxes don’t seem to realize that lowering taxes might just destroy what is essential about this nation — not just its social programs, which they would as soon see dry up, but the fiscal well-being of a solid middle class which many would regard as the backbone of this society. In fact, lowering the taxes — without, say, reducing such things as defense spending, which is currently 15 times larger than the amount we spend on education — would put is in even deeper debt to nations like China and India to whom we now owe billions of dollars. The notion that we can save the country by reducing taxes is not only short-sighted, it is incredibly stupid. Like it or not, taxes are a necessary evil and we actually benefit by paying more, not less — though there is clearly a point of diminishing return.

As one of my fellow bloggers who understands high finance much better than I pointed out recently: So help me understand this concept of “taxed enough already” as this independent data  would seem to indicate we are not taxed enough. To this old fart, we have to be prepared to step up and pay for something. Back in the early 2000′s when I was a Republican when the GOP actually strived for better stewardship, I was very much against the Bush tax cuts. When Bush’s senior tax advisor resigned and Warren Buffett cited we do not need these tax cuts, it confirmed my reservations. Mr. Norquist is fond of citing Ronald Reagan as the paragon, but President Reagan increased taxes five times after he had cut them too much with Tax Reform early in his presidency. Citing Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum in their book “That Used to be Us,” President Reagan hated deficits, so he realized he needed to increase taxes. However, he was smart enough to call them revenue enhancements.

Thus, dollar conservatives are not true conservatives at all. The true conservatives are the tree huggers and those who want to save life on this planet together with those who refuse to let go of the beautiful and magnificent works of the human mind that have defined Western civilization for hundreds of years. In a word, conservatives are preservationists who are focused on things they regard as more important than their pocketbook.

Punishment

In a recent blog I quoted Tiger Wood’s statement that stroke penalties in golf for slow play were unacceptable because they would cost the players money. I want to pursue this a bit and talk about punishment in general. It does seem to me that the purpose of punishing someone for breaking the rules, or the law, is to make them want never to do that thing again. In golf, if players don’t want point penalties, then that would be an appropriate penalty precisely because they don’t want it: it would deter them from playing slowly. If we levied a penalty the players thought acceptable, it wouldn’t be effective. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a penalty at all. I sometimes wonder how Tiger ever got admitted to Stanford!

In any case, it raises the question of what punishment is all about. Thomas More, in his remarkable book Utopia, thought punishment ought to improve people, make them better. In our culture, historically, we have operated on the principle of deterrence: punishment ought to deter future undesirable behavior. But we apply this principle in strange ways. If a man robs a bank at gun point, we “put him away” for a few years. It is supposed to keep him from robbing banks in the future — not only while he is in jail. But we know this doesn’t really work, and the culprit is often robbing again once he is back on the streets — having learned new tricks while in jail, no doubt. The principle itself is strange anyway: years in prison for taking money that doesn’t belong to him. It’s the same punishment we dole out for a man who repeatedly beats his wife: doing time. In neither case does the punishment make much sense.

Don’t we like to say the punishment ought to “fit the crime”? Years in prison for beating one’s wife doesn’t seem to fit somehow. Perhaps we ought to put the man in a locked room with two or three other men and have him beaten up until he feels what his wife felt. This, in brief, is the principle Dante operated on in his Inferno: the punishment fits the crime. For example, usurers who were deeper in Hell than murderers since they commit a violent crime “against art, God’s grandchild” sit around a plain of burning hot sand with bags of coins strung around their necks forcing them to watch the bag through eternity — presumably waiting for it to grow larger. After all, that’s what usurers do: they lend money at interest and make the money grow without actually doing anything to earn the profits. At least that was the Church’s view at the time.

Dante, of course, never questioned the appropriateness of capital punishment. It was generally accepted by the church that one who commits murder forfeits his life and deserves to die at the hands of the state. Aquinas argued this in his Summa Theologica, insisting that those who murder are animals and ought to be treated as such themselves: it’s their choice. In principle I would agree, but as I have argued in a previous blog the flaw in the scheme is human fallibility. Jurors and even eye-witnesses make mistakes. If humans never made mistakes then capital punishment would be entirely appropriate. But we make mistakes more often than not, so it can, and does, lead to terrible blunders. Be that as it may, “doing time” is a strange way to punish a person for taking another person’s life, or for most of the acts we regard as criminal.

We aren’t very creative in thinking of appropriate ways to punish people, though I can think of one interesting counter-example. A judge in a township not far away from me fined a construction company $100,000 for bid-rigging — and insisted that the amount fined go to four regional universities to establish programs in business ethics. My university already had the program, so we used the money to start a lecture series and brought in some very interesting people who spoke to us about business and ethics. Now that was appropriate punishment, and a very constructive way to “make good” on a rotten situation.

But this example is certainly the exception. In general we like to think the punishment  ought to fit the crime; it ought to deter the criminal from further crime and, as Thomas More thought, ideally it ought to reform the criminal and make him a more useful member of society. This last element we seem to ignore for the most part in our desire to “get back” at the criminal. So in the final analysis, we punish people to make ourselves feel better, to relieve our own stress at the thought that the guy is “out there,” or to satisfy our own need for revenge. None of the lofty reasons we give for punishing people seems to hold water. So we settle for what makes us feel good.

Rules Or No Rules?

The issue of slow play in golf raises an interesting philosophical question. Really. A recent article in USA Today  informs us that the issue is not new and is getting worse.

That’s the general consensus as the pace of play has reared its unhurried head in the last two weeks. In the PGA Tour‘s showcase event, the May 10-13 Players Championship, Kevin Na caused a slow burn for fans around the world as he took hundreds of waggles and regularly backed off shots. He even purposely whiffed so he could start over as he struggled with inner demons that wouldn’t allow him to get comfortable.

Last week, Morgan Pressel was assessed a slow-play penalty that cost her a hole in a semifinal bout with Azahara Munoz in the Sybase Match Play Championship, turning a commanding 3-up lead with six holes to play into a 1-up advantage she eventually lost.

It is true that watching golf on TV (I have never attended a tournament myself) is like watching grass grow — in a drought. And the average golfer is mimicking the pros not only in dress but also in behavior, causing slow play on the nation’s golf courses.  If I thought that the professionals were taking extra time over their ball to ponder the moral implications of playing a game for millions of dollars in prize money and endorsements while so many of their fellow citizens live in poverty, I would not complain so loudly. But I somehow doubt that this is the case. Nonetheless, while hardly a major issue, slow play is an interesting one.

I say that because sports are one of the few places in our society where rules still apply and when people openly flaunt the rules of golf, in this case, it is somewhat disquieting. After all, there are rules governing pace of play in golf and players at the professional level have been “put on the clock” more than once. But seldom, especially in the men’s game, have any penalties been levied — not even financial penalties even though the players are making millions of dollars.

On the women’s side, the rules were recently enforced against Morgan Pressel, as the article mentions. And it created a flurry of discussion on Golf Channel later on — for several hours. Should she have been penalized, given the fact that she had been warned twice about her pace of play and didn’t show any signs of quickening her pace? Those who defend her talked about the money she stood to lose by, in effect, being ruled out of the match-play tournament. But this is irrelevant — even though Tiger Woods used the same argument to insist that something should be done in the men’s game, but not anything that will cost anyone money. Dismissing stroke penalties, Woods said, “Strokes (cost) money. People don’t realize how valuable one shot out here is.” Really now, have we come to this? Is prize money the sole consideration here? It seems clear that when a rule is broken and warnings have been delivered, a penalty should be enforced — and it should be a stiff penalty. If not money in the form of a fine (which many of these players could pay with the small change in their pockets) then taking strokes away from them, which will indeed cost the players both large sums of money and quite possibly the prestige of winning.

I applaud the LPGA in their attempt to move the game along by enforcing reasonable rules. And I fault the PGA for mouthing platitudes and refusing to apply the same rules against the men who can take five or six hours to play 18 holes of golf these days. Not only does it make for boring TV — which one can always turn off — but it does lead to imitation by amateurs. But, above all else, it is a rule. And in sports rules should be enforced or they aren’t worth the paper they are written on. The lack of enforcement of rules reduces the value of sports in our culture to the level of simply another business endeavor where rules are broken every day in the name of larger profits. But, then, perhaps that is where we have arrived.

Romney Goes To School

Taking a page out of “W’s” book, Mitt Romney was recently in Philadelphia getting close to the folks in the inner city and posing as a friend of public education. Actually, we don’t know why he was there, but he took his jacket off and rolled up his sleeves to show he’s a “regular guy,” and he had some interesting things to say in defense of his claims that smaller classes do not benefit students. In a story in The Los Angeles Times we read that, according to Romney,  The consultants found that, “gosh, in schools that are the highest-performing in the world, their classroom sizes are about the same as in the United States. So it’s not the classroom size that’s driving the success of those school systems,” . . .. Instead, parental involvement and top-flight teachers and administrators make the difference.

I have no idea who “the consultants” were, but the notion that smaller classes don’t make it easier to teach is bullocks, as my English friends would say. The teachers in the room when Romney gave this little speech were quick to object. As the article notes, Romney was challenged repeatedly during a round table discussion with educators to defend his claim that reducing class size doesn’t improve student performance. Anyone who has spent any time in the classroom at all knows that the ideal is one-on-one and the effectiveness of teaching goes down proportionately from there. Classes of 50 are pretty much a waste of time for most (though certainly not all) students and classes larger than that are a bit of a joke. Much depends on what one wants to do in the class, of course, but large classes, as a rule, translate into time wasted. Online classes, as I have blogged about before, are mostly useful for transmitting information and the data suggest that the dropout rate is very high in such classes. One speculates that it might be a function of the lack of personal contact between teacher and students — and among the students themselves. Some of the best classes I taught in my 41 years of college teaching were ones in which I said very little and the students discussed the issues among themselves, with a gentle push from time to time to keep them on topic.

In any event, what Mitt had to say was not altogether wrong. He is certainly correct in saying that it all starts in the home. Parental involvement and top-flight teachers are of immense importance, especially in  the early years. For Romney this is an argument in favor of overhauling the education system, of course, and moving from public to charter schools. To be honest, though I would like to see the public schools be improved rather than, in effect, eliminated,  I am somewhat in sympathy with Romney here. I do think that our schools are failing in part because much of what is done in “teacher’s colleges” is a waste of time and money. And the data suggest that as a nation we are at present drawing our teachers from the lower third of the student population — probably because pay and benefits are so poor. This raises the issue of teachers’ unions.

Mitt contends that pressing for smaller classes is a ploy by teachers unions — one of his favorite targets — to get more teachers hired. But it is the unions that have made it possible for teachers to (barely) keep their financial heads above water and if things are to improve in the profession it will take more money, not less. If we want to upgrade the ranks of the teachers, we need to start paying them a living wage — as they do in Finland which Mitt correctly holds up as a model of public education. In that country competition is fierce to get the high-paying and high-prestige teaching jobs. The contrast with this country is sharp.

So, on balance, Mitt is correct in saying that parents need to become more involved in what their kids do before and especially early on in school. And he is right that we need first-rate teachers. But he is wrong to say that small classes are not a benefit to the kids. And he must realize that teachers’ unions are essential if we are to hope to improve the condition of the chronically low-paid teachers in this country and attract a better quality of mind to the profession, which he admits we need.

Education and Virtue

Socrates famously suggested that virtue is knowledge. This implies that if one knows what is the right thing to do she will do it. It also implies that virtue can be taught. Socrates’ style was ironic and one never knew whether he meant what he said. In addition, he was being quoted by an adoring pupil. But in any event, I think Socrates might have been wrong on both counts, especially since we now know a bit more about human motivation and human frailty than even Socrates knew.

This is all by way of introducing a discussion of the relationship between virtue and education. And while knowledge is not the same thing as education I want to talk a bit about the two and the supposed teachability of virtue. Education certainly involves both teaching and knowledge, even though it is not the same thing as either. But that doesn’t tell us much. To know more about what education is we need to ask what other things it is not.

Education is not schooling. There are many people who spent 20 or more years in school who are not well educated. It all depends on what they did while they were there. Furthermore, there are many well educated people who never spent much time in school — like Abraham Lincoln and Eric Hoffer. And education is certainly not vocational training either, since this focuses attention on the how to? and not they why for? Education involves the conveying of information, which is at least part of what happens in school, and what we can be done online. But it also involves the ability to assimilate that information and bring it to bear on problems and issues that need to be thought through and perhaps solved. This is seldom taught in the schools, and it certainly cannot be taught on the internet. In fact, education is more about process than it is about information. As Robert Hutchins was fond of saying, education is what is left after we have forgotten all we learned in school. An educated person, as I am fond of saying, has taken possession of her own mind: that person is autonomous, able to make her own decisions and not easily led by demagogues and quack salesmen or devious politicians.

Virtue, on the other hand, is about character. It is molded in youth and refined as one grows older. It is largely a matter of imitation: if the parents are honest people, it doesn’t matter what they say, the child will find truth-telling perfectly natural: she will become honest as well.  Strictly speaking, virtue is not taught. And since education is all about teaching and learning, it follows that virtue has nothing to do with education either. They are two separate capacities, if you will. Just because a person is well educated it does not follow that she will be virtuous. A well educated person who can think for herself will know what is the right thing to do in a particular situation, but she may not to it. Doing the right thing is a function of character, it’s about who you are. No matter how bright and well educated a person is, they may still do the wrong thing. There’s no necessary connection between intelligence and virtue whatever.

Torquemada, according to all accounts, was a very intelligent person, perhaps even well educated. But he was a monster because he couldn’t control his fanaticism. And virtue is, above all else, a matter of self-control. History is full of examples of well-intentioned people who nevertheless do the wrong thing. The road to Hell, I have heard it said, is paved with good intentions. And an education can make clear our good intentions, but it can only lead the way. Whether or not we choose to do the right thing depends on character.

As suggested above, virtue cannot be taught, in the sense that arithmetic or grammar can be taught. It is not a function of intelligence or a good education. It is a matter of following the example of good people and having our good inclinations reinforced by parents and grandparents. Teachers can teach arithmetic and correct grammar; they cannot teach virtue. Neither can coaches, as I have mentioned in a previous blog. But these people can certainly reinforce the lessons learned in the home — which is where virtue is learned, where the child becomes the good person — or the bad person. The most we can ask of  well-educated people is that they know what is the right thing to do; whether or not they choose to do it depends on what kind of person they are, whether they are virtuous.

Victimless Crimes?

I swore to myself that I would not discuss this issue on my blog. But the sustained interest in this tawdry affair demands some sort of comment. In a recent Yahoo news story, for example, we are told that the DEA is now involved in the prostitution scandal that recently rocked the Secret Service.

Two of the agents allegedly had encounters with masseuses in the apartment of one of the agents, according to Sen. Susan Collins, the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“It’s disturbing that we may be uncovering a troubling culture that spans more than one law enforcement agency,” the Maine Republican said this evening. “In addition to the Secret Service scandal, we now learn that at least two DEA agents apparently entertained female foreign national masseuses in the Cartagena apartment of one of the agents. The evidence uncovered thus far indicates that this likely was not just a one-time incident.”

Needless to say, it is the Republicans who want to keep our collective attention focused on these incidents, as though the Democratic President is personally or professionally responsible for what the people around him do in their free time. This is absurd on its face. Obama is responsible for a great many sins of omissions and commission, I dare say. We all are, including Senator Collins. But these would be acts the man committed himself or knew about and refused to take action to prevent. In the cases before us, there is simply no way he could be held responsible for actions agents of his government engaged in while out of his sight and hearing in their free time in a country in which prostitution is perfectly legal.

Generally speaking, prostitution is a “victimless crime.” That is to say, no harm, no foul. Sex between consulting adults in a country where that law allows women to receive cash payment for sex, cannot be viewed as a crime except by the neo-Puritans among us who simply think that prostitution is “wrong.”  What possible grounds could there be for condemning legal acts in which no one is harmed and both participants consent? There might be a moral issue if the women were forced into prostitution, as is sometimes the case. But this is not the case in Cartagena where the women who prostitute themselves do so voluntarily and, apparently, routinely. To be sure, many in our society find prostitution offensive for personal reasons, but that’s their problem. As a recent story in the New York Times noted following the scandal involving the security forces, Many here [in Cartagena] are perplexed about why the Americans have made such a fuss over something as unremarkable, in local eyes, as a man taking a woman to a hotel room, and paying for sex.

In the case of the Secret Service personnel who were supposed to protect the President, the situation is a bit more complex. There is some concern that secrets may have been divulged to the prostitutes, though it “beggars belief,” as the English would say. In any case, isn’t that always a possibility when two people are intimate? If secrets were revealed by the security people, it is irrelevant that the people who were supposedly told these secrets were prostitutes. The problem in this case is simply one of keeping security personnel away from anyone who might be told something that the government regards as a risk to national security. But this would mean keeping security personnel away from everyone, which is clearly absurd. One must trust that those with the highest clearance will not betray that trust.

The real issue here, as I see it, is that the Republicans want to make political hay out of an issue they think will help them regain the White House. It’s as simple as that. And it may indeed work if they are able to keep the issue afloat (as they seem to be doing) until well into the Summer and even into the Fall. The average citizen loves to read about this sort of thing and to cast stones from their glass house. So I dare say we will hear more about this sordid affair, even though it is hardly worth a moment of our time.

Random Acts

There is a part of me that gets very angry when I read and hear about the failings of my fellow human beings, their tendency toward self-absorption and lack of concern about the world around them or about other people. But every now and again I tumble across random acts of human kindness and genuine love and I take heart. I have mentioned Phil Mickelson who shares some of his immense wealth with others less fortunate than himself. That is certainly admirable. I am also aware that Magic Johnson has been tireless in his efforts to help the people in the inner city in Los Angles. He is certainly one of my heroes, especially when we read about so many professional athletes who spend their money on more cars, larger homes, piercings and tattoos, and so often seem to be violent and abusive.

I recall with special fondness the sight on TV of a man reaching up in the stands to catch a foul ball at a baseball game. His 4 or 5-year-old daughter is sitting next to him and after he catches the ball he hands it to his daughter — who promptly tosses the ball back on to the field! Rather than toss the little girl onto the field after the ball in anger and frustration, as one might expect, the man reaches down and embraces the little girl, who seems so pleased with herself, and gives her a big kiss. A lovely moment indeed, and shown repeatedly on ESPN for several weeks thereafter — as it should be.

But I have friends, we all do, who take time out of their lives to give to others, to volunteer in soup kitchens, or the hospital, or even at the golf course. It helps out, it involves sacrifice and giving of time and effort to make the lives of others more pleasant — or more endurable. I have a blog buddy, Jennifer, who takes time out of her busy life not to regale us with personal anecdotes, as so many bloggers seem to be doing, but to share news with her readers in an effort to make them more aware and get them thinking about some of the more pressing problems in our world — because she cares. I also have a close friend who has had his own terrible times and spends hours now counseling others who face the same traumas and fears he has managed to work through himself.

Indeed, there are good people on this planet along with those who simply don’t see beyond their own noses and who ignore others in their pursuit of pleasure and wealth. The latter group is the larger one, I am convinced. But they share this increasingly crowded planet with others who really care and who are given to acts of random kindness. I must keep reminding myself.

Self-Restraint

A recent article in Yahoo news is disturbing for several reasons. It reads, in part,

. . .a Tennessee man who has fathered 30 children is asking the courts for a break on child support. Desmond Hatchett, 33, of Knoxville has children with 11 different women, reports WREG-TV. The state already takes half his paycheck and divides it up, which doesn’t amount to much when Hatchett is making only minimum wage. Some of the moms receive as little as $1.49 a month. The oldest child is 14 years old.

One hesitates to open a discussion on this topic for fear of the charge of “racism,” since Hatchett is black. However, it would be racist for me to ignore the problem simply because of the man’s race. In any event, I will risk it because the wrongs in this case have nothing whatever to do with race: they are a result of a lack of restraint and downright stupidity. The man has 30 kids and cannot afford to support them or the women who had them. In 2009 he promised the court that he would have no more because of the financial strain it put on him (and them), yet in the interim he fathered 9 more.

The lack of restraint is clear, and since self-restraint is a major feature of virtue as we know it (though the word itself sounds very “old-fashioned” these days), one can conclude that fathering that many children when the man lacks the funds necessary to feed and clothe them is simply wrong. But it is wrong on a larger scale as well, given the plight of the world and the fact that the earth will soon be unable to produce enough food to keep humans alive. Indeed, there are people starving all over the world as I write this. But the problem will become much worse, given the present addition of 200,000 humans each day to an increasingly crowded world. Predictions are dire, as we can read in Wikipedia: David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, estimates that the sustainable agricultural carrying capacity for the United States is about 200 million people; its population as of 2011 is over 310 million. In 2009, the UK government’s chief scientific advisor, Professor John Beddington, warned that growing populations, falling energy reserves and food shortages would create a “perfect storm” by 2030. Beddington claimed that food reserves were at a fifty-year low, and that the world would require 50% more energy, food and water by 2030. According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the world will have to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion people

And yet even in the face of these facts our culture still applauds the parents who produce scores of children and we flock to movies about mothers and fathers who are having more children or courageous single women who want to have a baby because their “biological clock” is ticking.  Our TV programs always show increased audience numbers when the main characters are (a) getting married and/or (b) having babies. The messages we read and hear on all sides are that large families — which are no longer necessary — are not only acceptable, they are praiseworthy. We seem to be fixated on the subject of children and without thinking, simply insist that more is better — whether or not “more” can be supported. There is serious cultural myopia here: can we not see that those who have children have a moral responsibility to raise them in a healthy world that can provide them with adequate food and clothing? But our present myopic view about marriage and family is in fact a kind of moral blindness.  It is reprehensible and irresponsible. And it will come back to haunt us in the not-so-long run.