Good People Doing Good Things … Three Amazing Kids

Two kids who know what Christmas is all about and a young woman who is wise beyond her years! Terrific stuff!

Filosofa's Word

Have you ever noticed that for some reason, people seem kinder around this time of year?  People just seem more willing to open both their wallets and their hearts during the Christmas season, and I don’t see it as a religious thing, for many of the most generous people are not Christians.  There is just a certain magic that comes from the lights, the scents, the sounds, that makes people feel better.  This week’s ‘good people’ post begins with a young man who shows us his “Christmas Spirit”.


Jayden Perez – age 8

His name is Jayden Perez and he is 8 years old, living in Woodland Park, New Jersey.  Not long ago, Jayden told his mom that he wanted to donate all his Christmas gifts this year to the children in Puerto Rico who lost everything to Hurricane Maria in September.  But his mom, Ana Rosado, gave him the…

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Inside The Ivory Tower

Several months ago I noted that the American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb had pointed out in one of her many books that much that happens within the Ivory Tower has an impact on much of what happens  in what people like to refer to as “the real world.” The obvious example is “P.C.” that started within the Tower and has permeated our culture at present, especially the halls of corporate America where lawyers earn big fees making sure no one says anything to anyone the might get someone into trouble — or, more to the point, drag the corporate body into court. One might mention the postmodern attack on truth and factuality which has reared its ugly head outside the Ivory Tower in the form of “Alternative Facts.” In any event, all of us might want to pay attention to what those folks behind those ivy covered walls are up to.

Of greatest concern, in my view, is what is called “Identity Politics.” This movement started in the mid 70s in our academies of higher learning and has mushroomed into a full-out assault on everything once considered sacred, including much of the subject matter that comprises the bulwark of Western Civilization. In any event, the mantra in the Ivory Tower these days is that we must trash the detritus of Western Civilization — all of it bad — and care about, if not care for, the chronically disadvantaged, the marginal folks who have been long ignored in academia, and without. This has resulted in a spate of courses in such things as “women’s studies,” “black studies, “native American studies,” and the like. I have blogged about such courses before, but the main point is that these courses are important in their own way, but they are narrow in scope and have wrongly displaced the core of liberal courses that espouse a broad approach to education and also have the goal of putting young people in possession of their own minds, not the minds of their politically motivated instructors. “Studies” courses tend to be dogmatic and confuse education with indoctrination. The defense, when there is one, is that education has always preached and it is now “our turn.” But this a mistake of the first order. Education is not about preaching at all, regardless of what the message happens to be.

In any event, there are those who say that our institutions of higher education have become nothing less than therapy clinics designed to make sure that all who enter will never suffer the slings and arrows of bigotry or insult. This, too, is not a bad thing  — up to a point. We need to be sensitive to the concerns of those who have been marginalized and who might suffer from disguised attacks on the values they hold most dear in the form of language they find hurtful. But at the same time, higher education is supposed to prepare young people for the world outside the Ivory Towers and pain is part of life, as is racism and bigotry. And all ideas are deserving of consideration regardless of how unpalatable they might be. These young people might be better off in the long run if they confronted their fears and suspicions in a place where such things can be discussed in a rational and coherent manner, rather than pretending life is all skittles and beer and finding out later it is not so.

As far as the influence of identity politics outside the hallowed halls of academe is concerned, it has been said of the liberals who lead the growing numbers of folks within the academy in their collective outrage against all things Western that their influence is bringing about the demise of the Democratic Party. I have seen it argued that it is precisely the concern with marginalized people and the concomitant ignoring of “Mainstream America” that is destroying the Democratic Party. Instead of bringing America together, separateness is the word of the day. The connection here is liberals within the walls and liberal politicians without. And this despite the fact that Hillary Clinton, in the recent election, collected three million more popular votes than did her opponent — what’s-his-name. The logic I must say, leaves me a bit confused, but the point may be worth considering. It seems unwise to ignore the major players in the game of politics, the folks that could win or lose an election.

The Democratic Party has historically drawn its strength from the mass of men and women who have been ignored by the wealthy fat cats who control the strings of political power. The Democratic Party, it has been said, cares about people, the Republican Party  cares only about profits. Simplistic, I would agree. But perhaps not entirely wrong. In any event, it might be wise for the Democratic Party to take a long hard look at the people it seeks to draw into its house. Just pause and consider the loonies the Republicans have recently invited into theirs! Should the Democrats be concerned only about marginalized people and ignore entirely those who sweat and strain to make ends meet in “Mainstream America,” those folks who have traditionally been the backbone of the Democratic Party? It is a question worth pondering.

On Being Successful

In a recent professional football game involving the Pittsburg Steelers, one of Pittsburg’s defensive backs suffered a spinal injury because of a head-on tackle in which he exhibited poor technique. He lay moaning on the ground for minutes until he was carted away and sent to the hospital. As of this writing he has had back surgery and is still being observed by the medical experts to see if there is any permanent damage. If there is, it certainly wouldn’t be the first such case. And it will almost certainly not be the last.

This set the networks abuzz with talk about how brutal a game is football — at all levels — and had many a talking head on television wondering what more could be done to prevent further injuries. The NFL is already concerned about concussions, which have had serious consequences for many retired football players; equipment has been improved and there is a great deal more caution after a possible head-on collision than there once was.

In any event, one of the Steelers was interviewed on ESPN and defended his sport despite its violence — trying to calm the waters and assure people that the game is not “brutal” and it would go on. I will not mention his name (because I can’t remember it!) but it matters not. His somewhat disjointed comments defended the sport which he loves because it has enhanced his “family legacy,” i.e., it has made him an immensely wealthy man. There was more to his comments than this, but this was the gist of what he said. And it raises a number of questions.

To begin with, it is a non-sequitur because the violence of the game cannot be dismissed because it makes a number of men very wealthy. In addition, of course, the comments were all about the player himself with little mention of his teammate who lay in a hospital bed trying to recover from a very painful injury. But, more to the point, we heard once again the All-American mantra that identifies success with wealth (his “family legacy”). To be a successful person in this country one must be  tremendously wealthy. Those who dedicate themselves to the well-being of others and make sacrifices every day to make sure that others are healthy and happy, or perhaps simply better informed, are not regarded as successful — unless they can brag about their bank accounts and show you their expensive cars and their overpriced, palatial homes. This is absurd.

In his lectures on sincerity and authenticity, Lionel Trilling points out that the West has struggled for many years with the concept of authenticity, the notion that human beings are truly human when they have achieved not wealth but authenticity: when they are who they truly are. Trilling  focuses on Jean Paul Sartre who spent many pages in his Being and Nothingness talking about “Bad Faith,” the tendency of people — all people — to play roles, to pretend to be someone they are not.  To an extent, Sartre would insist, society demands that we do so. But this does not alter the fact that we wear masks.

Trilling points out that true authenticity has to do with being, not about having. He quotes Oscar Wilde who insisted that “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has but in what man is.” We are truly human when we achieve autonomy, when we are self-directed, not when we become wealthy. In fact, money has nothing whatever to do with it. He notes that this popular misconception, this false identification of wealth with success, stems from the confusion of having with being: it is a type of inauthenticity. We are not what we have; we are what we are within ourselves and in relation to others.

It is not likely that our notion of success, insisting that success is identified with what we have, will change. But it is quite likely that the storm over the violence in America’s most popular sport will quiet down and there will be more injuries in the future. Is it just possible that this is a good thing because it allows Americans to get vicarious pleasure from a violent sport that releases some of the pent-up frustration resulting from lives spent pursuing wealth which they identify with success — though they sense dimly that there is something terribly wrong somewhere?

Giving Back

Much ink has been spilled and much air has been let out of bloated lungs regarding the decision over a year ago but Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the national anthem before one of his football games. Many have attacked the man himself and he has been virtually ostracized by the NFL because of his stand — despite the fact that he is an able quarterback and could help a number of teams who will have nothing to do with him.

I defended him in a post early on and I still think he has been largely misunderstood by those who can only see his actions as insulting to flag and country. But the bottom line, as an article in this month’s Sports Illustrated makes clear, is that he has had a positive impact on the issues he wanted to raise, namely, human rights, equality and fairness — all worthy concerns, indeed.

Kaepernick’s ostracism has already cost him a small fortune in lost salary and endorsements, but he has given $900,000 of the $1 million he has pledged to various charities around the country that focus on repairing some of the damage done by our long-time lack of interest in the plight of those who are chronically disadvantaged. At a time when professional sports figures are pilloried for their lack of social conscience — much of it deserved — it is heartening to be informed that not only Kaepernick himself but numerous other athletes are doing something more than kneeling at sporting events. They are doing what they can to help eradicate social injustice.

Among those who have given of their time and money are the following:

Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long who gave $375,000 so far to fund scholarships in Charlottesville, Virginia and has promised more than $650,000 to his “Pledge 10 for Tomorrow campaign which will help make education more easily accessible to underserved youths.”

Steeler’s Left Tackle Alejandro Villanueva is donating proceeds from his jersey sales to “military nonprofits — just as he has done in the previous three years.”

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning has helped raise more than $35 million for “New York March for Babies ” to fight premature birth. And his work with “Tackle Kids Cancer campaign has led to more than $1 million in fund-raising.”

Seattle Seahawk’s defensive end Michael Bennet has pledged half of his jersey sales profits to inner-city garden projects “and all of his endorsement earnings are tabbed for s.t.e.a.m. programs [science, technology, engineering, arts, and math] and charities focused on empowering minority women.”

And Cliff Avril, another Seattle Seahawk, has promised to build a house on Haiti for each sack this season — of which he has had 11 1/2 so far this season. “He and a group of NFL players built a dozen homes in the offseason, provided clean water to an orphanage and renovated a school.”

In addition, one of the two “sportspersons of the year,” J.J,. Watt of the Houston Texans has raised over $37 million for hurricane relief after a hurricane ravaged the city of Huston earlier this year. This included a $5 million donation from a billionaire and an average of $177 from over 209,000 donations.

At a time when we hear so many negative things said about professional sportsmen, this is good news indeed. We can only hope this is not a “one-off” as the Brits like to say and that it will continue as we all become more aware that there are people in need and many who are disadvantaged in a country that prides itself on its “greatness.”

Revisiting The Teacher As Victim

In giving my book a final read before it is sent off to the publishers, I thought this particular post would not only help me “hype” the book (!) but also be worth a moment’s reflection. It’s not all about self-promotion, you know. It’s more nearly about provoking thought I would hope.

If Richard Hofstadter were writing today as he did in 1962 when he explored the origins of anti-intellectualism in this country, he might be struck by the open attacks on the public school system. But he would not be surprised by the low opinion the general public has of the teacher in the schools. In his book, Anti-Intelectualism in American Life, Hofstadter quotes at length a pamphlet written by a New England farmer, William Manning of North Billerica, Massachusetts in 1798. Manning argues as best he can against “book learning” and defends a pragmatic theory of education in which children are taught their three R’s but little else. As Hofstadter tells us:

At the heart of Manning’s philosophy was a profound suspicion of the learned and property-holding classes. Their education, their free time, and the nature of their vocations made it possible, he saw, for the merchants, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, and executive and judicial officers of state to act together in pursuit of their ends, as the laboring man could not.

Now if we dismiss the bit of paranoia at the heart of Manning’s attack on the intelligentsia of his day, he has an interesting point — one that goes a long way toward explaining why so many people have such a low opinion of teachers, whom Manning sees as also belonging to the leisure class. That is to say (as Manning himself put it), they are among “those that live without work.” Please note here that “work” means laboring, sweating, physical engagement in “the real world.” Life in the ivory tower or the classroom is clearly other-worldly, and does not involve real work. I suspect this is an attitude that is shared by many today who see the teachers around them working short hours with long vacations. Folks who struggle to succeed in the work-a-day world don’t regard those who teach as doing real work. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Or, as President Joseph Caldwell of the University of North Carolina said late in the nineteenth century, “To teach school is, in the opinion of many, little else than sitting still and doing nothing.” I suspect that many a teacher would love to see these folks spend a week in front of one of their classes!

But rather than choose sides on this issue (and it is clear which side one who taught for 42 years would come down on!) I would like to draw some lessons from all this. To begin with, the attack on our schools is nothing less that one of the many signs of the anti-intellectualism that pervades this country. The notion that teachers don’t do real work is, I dare say, widely shared — given the misconceptions that are abroad. I know when I taught at the university level there were several studies undertaken in order to fend off the attacks of the critics who hold the purse strings; those studies showed that the average college professor worked 62 hours a week. The public misconceptions arose from the fact that the normal teaching load was 12 hours of classroom teaching a week, even less in larger universities where professors publish or perish. So folks naturally assumed that college professors are lazy and overpaid. Some are, to be sure, but not all. Even more unsettling, however, is the fact that I know a number of high school teachers, of all people, who regard college professors as among those who “live without work.” There’s resentment all around us! But the critics are wrong: teaching is real work, at any level. The notion that a 12 hour class load is not real work ignores the countless hours a college professor spends preparing lectures, advising students, attending (boring) meetings, and grading papers. I am sure elementary and high school teachers, who must not only teach their subject but also try to keep order among unruly kids, spend many hours in and out of their classrooms doing the same sorts of things as well — including, in their cases, meeting with parents. Anyone who thinks this is not real work needs to think again.

But very little thought is involved in this controversy, as we can see by reflecting on what the Massachusetts farmer was saying in the eighteenth century. When one’s frame of reference defines real work as laboring in the fields or spending eight hours a day in a shop, a cubicle, or on the assembly line, the life of the teacher must seem easy and totally lacking in worth. Despite the fact that a solid core of merchants and businessmen in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, like Andrew Carnegie, were staunch supporters of education, after the Civil War the antipathy between the average business person and the intellectual became sharper and deeper, and as more and more of the nation’s children needed to be schooled education increasingly became a matter of “life adjustment” or job preparation, and teachers, earning a pittance, continued to be held in low esteem. Increasing numbers of business persons, and others in the work-a-day world, adopted the perspective of the farmer from Massachusetts. And that’s the key here: we are faced by two opposing and conflicting world-views. This is not an issue that can be settled by thoughtful debate. It is an issue of the heart: it’s about feelings, such as resentment and envy based on misconceptions. One can hope to correct those misconceptions, but I doubt that the feelings will be altered by even the most lengthy discussion.

In a word, the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter so carefully examines has its roots deep in a country that was wrestled away from the wilderness (and the native people) by men and women of little learning but immense courage, practical skill, and determination. It’s easy to see why they and their progeny distrust those who get paid to work with their minds and seem to have it easy. Even today in the popular mind teachers “live without work.” This is nonsense, of course, but it is what a great many people believe and I don’t see it changing in the near future. Unless there is a radical change in cultural perspective, teachers will continue to have it hard and can expect little or no sympathy from those who are convinced they are overpaid and “live without work” — which goes a long way toward explaining why this country’s educational system is in such dire straits.

Sad But True

I know I tend to repeat myself about the sad demise of education in what was once one of the the more literate countries on earth (?), but the evidence is “out there.” Our schools are simply not getting the job done, and cutting off funding is not the answer. On the contrary. But this brief note in a recent New York Times story pretty much puts the icing on the cake:

“Just how bad is our reading problem? The last National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 is a bit dated, but it offers a picture of Americans’ ability to read in everyday situations: using an almanac to find a particular fact, for example, or explaining the meaning of a metaphor used in a story. Of those who finished high school but did not continue their education, 13 percent could not perform simple tasks like these. When things got more complex — in comparing two newspaper editorials with different interpretations of scientific evidence or examining a table to evaluate credit card offers — 95 percent failed.” 

I saw this in my college classrooms on a day-to-day level and started to do some research years ago to see if it was just in my experience. But it is not. It is a problem that is endemic in a culture that is increasingly disinclined to read and write and, of late, addicted to electronic toys. And it helps explain why our recent presidential election went the way it did. The only way out is to make a genuine commitment to education, including full funding; and one would like to see the Blob dismembered — the Blob being the huge bureaucracy that controls public education at all levels. If tiny Finland can get it right, we certainly can — if we want to!

Sign of the Apocalypse?

In the face of scandals that have repeatedly rocked NCAA Division I Football and Basketball of late, it is sobering to see that Texas A&M just signed Jimbo  Fisher to a ten-year contract at $75 million. I daresay this is more than the Nobel Prize winning physicist on their faculty makes — if there is such an animal at Texas A&M.

Recent scandals have hurt the University of Tennessee so much that no one seems to want to go there to coach their beleaguered football team. They have already spent in excess of $13 million simply trying in vain to find someone willing to coach their team!

What this teaches us is that we all know semi-professional men’s sports at the NCAA Division I level are rotten to the core. We know that and further we know what to do about it, namely, reduce the obscene amounts of money that are being shoveled into those programs at the highest levels. But the golden goose is safe from the slaughter-house because money talks and there are sources out there that are apparently willing to pay whatever it costs to have a winning team — whatever it costs.

The costs to the academic programs at those universities are already beyond rubies, I suspect, as students increasingly find themselves drawn to the party schools where the Saturdays are filled with many beers and endless boola-boola (and most likely rumpy-pumpy) and the rest of the week is spent planning for the weekends.

Lost in the shuffle is the antiquated notion that colleges are supposed to prepare young people to deal with an increasingly disjointed world. They need to learn how to use their minds, not how to raise their glasses to the most recent success on the gridiron. And how is one to justify the millions of dollars being spent on mindless sports that are really nothing more, or less, than a diversion to allow us to escape from our dull, wretched lives?

As I write this I do wonder where the TV remote is. I don’t want to miss the games this Saturday. After all, the four teams that will play for the national championship will be  determined today!