The Patient

There he sits, over there near the window. He looks a bit pale and not full of vim and vinegar as they say. We had some tests done last week and the doctor wants to run some more next week. In the meantime, he tells us to humor the boy and give him what he wants. Don’t force him to eat anything he doesn’t want to eat and try to keep him as calm as possible. They don’t know what the problem is, but they know that he needs to be cared for and we plan to do just that. After all, we love him and want him to be happy. If only we could find out what is wrong with him. We ask, but all he does is mumble and play with that damned iPhone, telling us he needs to keep up with what’s going on with his friends. Sometimes I just wish we could snatch that thing and throw it in the garbage. But I suspect he would be right in there after it! Sick or not sick, he always has that thing in his hand and pretty much ignores us. But we love him and the doctor say to do what he wants so we will continue to humor him.

The patient, of course, is America’s child. And he is not physically sick, but whatever the problem is we aren’t going to solve it by humoring him.

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Why?

Though it was, admittedly, many years ago, I recall vividly the very first seminar I attended as a Freshman in college. This was a real seminar, where the students were expected to carry the ball; not a “seminar” where students sat and listened to an “expert” talk at them. We had been reading Homer’s Illiad and about midway through the two-hour seminar I made what I thought was a salient point about the reasons Hector dragged Achilles’ body three times around Troy after killing him. Almost immediately another student looked at me and asked “why?” I was stunned. I thought the point was obvious. Why should I have to give reasons for what otherwise was as obvious as the proverbial nose on your face?

My blogging buddy Keith recently mentioned that his daughter, a college Freshman, was praised by her professor for writing a paper in his class in which she took exception to what the author had said. She was praised because she was one of the few students who disagreed with what she was reading and being told. She had asked herself the question: “why?” She was praised because she was one of the few who had done so.

Little kids ask the question “why? repeatedly out of their natural curiosity. Their fathers and mothers answer until they are finally forced to say “because I said so.” Perhaps this stops the question, but not for long. The child soon begins again: “Why Daddy?”  “Why Mommy?” Eventually they stop asking the question. And the schools rarely encourage students to ask the question, so the kids stop asking questions and increasingly believe what they are told  — even by chronic liars who couldn’t tell a fact if it came up and bit them in the butt.

Why is this? I never stopped asking this question after that first seminar. In fact, we had four years of seminars twice a week in which students were constantly asking the “why question.” It led me to philosophy where I have continued to ask the question ever since. Indeed, I wrote an ethics book that centers on the question “why?” in an attempt to encourage the students to ask that question at every turn — just as they did as little children. The “why question” requires that reasons be given for claims being made. One doesn’t simply accept as fact the things people say or write. One demands evidence and argument support — even in ethics, where we too frequently dismiss complex issues with the lazy response “who’s to say?”

Complex issues demand thought and the refusal to stop asking the why question until we have reached a point where the answer seems to be staring us in the face. When the weight of the evidence seems to have provided the answer, it is time to stop (subject to further review). But we never know when we have reached that point until we have examined the issue from both sides and have eliminated all possibilities. It is an exhausting process, but it is what makes us think when we might otherwise allow our mental faculties to sleep and simply accept as true a claim that is blatantly false. You know, the kinds of things that certain politicians say all the time.

There has never been a better time than the present to ask the “why question,” and we should not stop until it seems pointless to ask it any more. And that point cannot be reached without persistence and determination to know what is true and separate the true from the false, the absurd from the plausible, the reasonable from the unreasonable. We will never know where that point is until we have reached it. And it is best to have someone asking it with us, because two heads really are better than one — as I learned lo those many years ago in that seminar.

Hanlon’s Razor

There are conflicting views regarding the thousands of young children who are fleeing Central America to come to this country where they hope to rejoin their parents or close relatives from whom they have been separated, in many cases, for years. They, too, hope to discover the “American Dream” their parents left to discover. And while the conservatives in this country cry out and wring their hands, those kids only hope to leave behind the poverty, violence, and chaos of small countries in turmoil. One recent Huffpost by Claire McCarthy, a medical doctor, puts the plight of those children in perspective:

As I listen to the news coverage about all the unaccompanied minors coming from Central America, what I mostly hear is worry about how to house them, how to handle the legal ramifications, how to pay for them and how to stop them from coming across the border.

What about worrying if they are OK?

I get that this is an immigration problem, a legal problem and an outrageous logistical problem. But first and foremost, it’s a humanitarian problem.

These are children. Children who have been traveling alone, or with shady people they don’t know. They are coming to find their families — or they are fleeing violence and poverty we can’t even imagine. They aren’t coming to take jobs away from Americans or as part of an immigration loophole strategy. They are coming for a better life — but truly, can you be angry at a child for not wanting a life of violence and poverty?

In many cases these children are being kept in make-shift enclosures until the officials who have to deal with the mess can find their parents in this country, or at least someone who would be willing to sponsor these children and help them find a place to live and meaningful work. This is a process that can take months — years in some cases. In the meantime, the kids are supplied with books and paper and crayons and they draw pictures of the land they soon hope to be a part of, complete with American flags dotting the foreground. Like their parents, and like so many of our ancestors, they dream of America, the land of the free.

And while the conservative element in this country fret over the amounts of money it will take to relocate or (in their minds, preferably) send those kids back where they came from, to the violence, the corruption, the gangs and traffickers in prostitution, there on the border, hiding behind masks, are growing numbers of heavily armed, self-appointed guardians of the turf, determined not to allow those children set foot in “their” country — forgetful of the fact that not so long ago they also sought a safe haven where they could live and breathe as free men.

There is, apparently, a slight majority of Americans who want those kids to be welcomed and rejoined with their parents in this country. This small majority is mostly silent and stands in the background unobtrusively while the watchful guardians of what they regard as the American way present the ugly face of America at its worst. I am reminded of Hanlon’s Razor which tells us “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Stupidity and fear, a fear that is growing like a weed in this country and bringing out the worst form of insect from under the rocks in an angry mood and well-armed to boot. In the meantime, the kids wait and the Congress prevaricates — which they do so well — fearful that taking any humane steps might damage the chances of their membership during the coming mid-term elections. Better to do nothing than to do the right thing, the humane thing, the thing that has made this country great for over two hundred years.

Santa Lives!

The story began:

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The young father stood in line at the Kmart layaway counter, wearing dirty clothes and worn-out boots. With him were three small children.

He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter.

“She told him, ‘No, I’m paying for it,'” recalled Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis. “He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn’t, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears.”

At Kmart stores across the country, Santa seems to be getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by impoverished parents.

Amazing story. Apparently there is a number of similar stories of generosity at KMart stores around the country — with no hidden agendas, apparently. For some reason, the donors seem to focus on that chain (perhaps because KMart is struggling to survive in the contest with Target and Walmart). But whatever the reason, it is heartwarming to know that there are good people who want to do something at this time of year besides open presents.

I must say, I grow in my distaste for what we call “the Christmas spirit,” which seems to me to be antithetical to what a celebration of the birth of Christ should be all about. And when I think of the real need around the world that could be met with such generosity, I do wonder about our priorities. The purchase of toys for American children doesn’t seem to me to be terribly important, in the grand scheme of things. There are people in this country and all over the world who can’t put food on the table at Christmas time or any other time, for that matter. But when I read of this sort of thing it does make the cynic in me take a back seat and just feel good for the kids who will be having a merry Christmas. And perhaps even more gratifying is the thought that there are some very generous people out there who just want to make the world a better place. Let’s hope their generosity doesn’t begin and end at this time of the year.

Building Self-Esteem

One of the curious notions that permeates education circles in the lower grades these days is the idea that children should be told they are wonderful when, in fact, they have done nothing to deserve praise or even acknowledgement. This notion was recently questioned by a character on the popular TV show “Modern Family” when Jay told his wife, Gloria, that she should be honest with her son and not praise him when he doesn’t deserve it. It made for some light humor, but it is an interesting point.

Educators like to think of themselves as occupying a special branch of social science, but the fact that the social sciences do not support the self-esteem movement doesn’t seem to faze these people. When a school board member in the California school system was confronted by the evidence that stroking children undeservedly doesn’t improve their performance, he was noted to say “I don’t care what the evidence shows, I know it works.” Don’t confuse me with the facts!

Not only do the data not support the theory, they actually fly in the face of this theory and support the position Jay takes in the TV show. Telling kids they are wonderful, or the latest project they made is terrific when, in fact, it is awful, does not build the child’s self-esteem. It actually confuses them and undermines their confidence in adults. Kids know when they are being misled.  This is one of the points I was making in my blog about “Sports Lessons” when I contrasted sports with education. In sports, the athlete — at any age — knows when he or she has done something deserving praise. When the praise comes, in the form of applause or awards, the athlete has a well-deserved sense of pride and accomplishment. When a child in school is told that his science project is great when she knows it took very little time, no imagination, and doesn’t even work, it simply confuses and undermines confidence in the teacher, or the one heaping praise. Moreover, when you think about it, false praise is insulting to the child.

In the TV show, Jay’s son, Manny, is puffed up with the effusive praise his mother heaps on a centerpiece he has made for the dinner table on Thanksgiving. It is awful, and when Gloria is in the other room, Jay takes Manny aside and tells him the piece “is not your best work.” At the same time, he assures the boy that he can do better, and Manny senses that this is true and we have one of those moments that suggest that TV really could be a valuable tool is helping us raise our children if it weren’t preoccupied with sex and violence and selling the sponsor’s products. Jay gives an honest opinion of the project, while at the same time assuring the boy that he can do better: the comment does not tear down the boy’s self-confidence, it redirects his attention away from the false image his mother has created of him and the rather weak effort he has (knowingly) made and assures him that he can do better the next time. It is a character-building moment. Honesty really is the best policy.

Just Say No!

Hannah Arendt was a brilliant social and political theorist who made an international reputation by reflecting on the aftermath of Hitler’s atrocities against humankind. She reflected often and deeply on judgment and responsibility and in 1959 she had this to say about the latter: “…progressive education by abolishing the authority of adults implicitly denies their responsibility for the world into which they have borne their children and refuses the duty of guiding them in it…To the extent that parents and teachers fail him as authorities, the child will conform to his own group and, under certain conditions the peer group will become his supreme authority. The result can only be the rise of mob and gang rule.”

When she speaks of “progressive education” she is talking abut the movement in education that started in England with the “free school” movement that allowed students to take whatever courses whenever they wanted to — on the questionable assumption that students only learn what they want to learn. It became the child-oriented educational system that was fostered by John Dewey in this country and is now a flood tide that washes over education at all levels in this country and abroad. One of its bastard step-children is the elective system which I fought against throughout my career as a college teacher. How can students make informed choices about the courses they will need as they grow older when they haven’t yet taken those courses? It’s absurd on its face and rests on a faulty understanding of the nature of freedom. I developed this theme in my book, Recalling Education.

Regarding the parent, of course, Arendt’s notion that children require authority is based on Freudian notions that the young not only need but they truly want structure in their lives, otherwise they become narcissistic. We as adults deny our responsibilities to the young when we simply allow them to do whatever they want and just try not to get in their way. Arendt would have us just say “no” and mean it. The young need some sense of authority and while we as teachers and parents do not know everything, we know more than the kids — or if we don’t we have no business being parents or presuming to teach the young.

But like so many wise words, Arendt’s fell on deaf ears.