Wonder

Children are filled with wonder. Why does this happen, Mommy? Why did that happen Daddy? Their world is filed with wonderful things and experiences. As we grow older, however, the wonder diminishes. This is especially true in our age of Google. If we have a question we take out the iPhone and Google it. The things we used to marvel at are no longer worth a moment’s thought. We presume to know so much and we laugh at those who can’t keep up.

I recently finished a novel by a former student, Bart Sutter, who won the Minnesota Book Award in fiction with this collection of short stories (My Father’s War). I was struck, as I read, how this man is still a young boy, how he is able to capture those fleeting moments when the things around him make him wonder. I do not disparage here; I admire.

In one of his stories Bart describes a blizzard going on outside the house where he and his brothers have been trapped after visiting their Mom and Dad at Christmas. He describes for us the beauty of the snow as it is softly and gently falling and, later, the beautiful sculptures the wind makes with the fallen snow. While walking outside with his brother the hero of the story is stunned by the complete silence that surrounds him in the deep snow at night. I share with Bart my love of the Winter snow and shake my head as my friends head South to escape the Minnesota Winters. I especially love the snow that sparkles like a thousand diamonds in the moonlight or even the light cast be a nearby street light.

In all his stories Bart is looking around and seeing the wonders that surround him. And he listens as well and shares with us the sounds of the forest and the angry lake as it laps fiercely against the shore in a storm. This is a true gift and one that I wish I had. But nevertheless I can appreciate the world this author, and a few others like him, are able to create and put into writing. They help all of us to cling to the remnants of that wonder that filled us when we were young — at least those of us who still read.

Some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen have come during a Minnesota Winter and while reading Bart’s book I shared with him the wonder that the world presents to us each and every moment — if only we take a moment and look around. But we don’t. We are in a hurry and we have in hand the magic tool that allows us to look up the answer to any questions we might have. We have lost our sense of wonder. This is truly sad.

A good friend and fellow blogger recently said that she has no interest in turning back the clock to a world in which so many of the things we take for granted were not yet even thought of. In a way I agree with her. I would have been dead several times over with various ailments if it were not for modern medicine. And I am the first to take an aspirin when my head aches — rather than to lie down with a cold rag on my forehead and wait for the pounding to stop. But at the same time, those simpler times were superior to ours in that things moved so much slower and the temptation to hurry was not everywhere present. We were not victims of the desire for immediate gratification. We miss so much when we scurry along like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, watch in hand a late for something or other. Only we don’t hold a watch, we hold a mobile phone where we can check up on what’s going on around without even looking around.

I don’t advocate that we remain children all our lives — though emotionally a great many of us do so uninvited. But the wonder that the child has is worth preserving and should be carried with us in a locked box well into old age. It is one of those things — like love and beauty — that makes life worth living.

Ethical Dilemma

In 1993 I wrote an ethics textbook designed to provoke thought in undergraduates and at the same time suggest that it is possible to think about ethical issues –not just emote. The book did not sell particularly well but was later picked up by a larger publisher and is still in print and selling fairly well (which amazes me no end). But one of the things I was particularly pleased about in that book was the final chapter which consisted of a number of case studies in fields as far apart as medicine and business — though those two are not so far apart these days. One of the categories was sports and I included a case that was actually based on a young man who had played football at the university where I taught — a “small potatoes” football team with a top-line player. The example changes his name but is based on what actually happened to that young man. I place it here to provoke thought (!) and to raise the question of whether what is legal is always necessarily moral or ethical.

At the age of 17 William”Willie” Smith was caught dealing drugs in his home state of Florida. While he was awaiting trial he enrolled at a local Junior Colleege and later transferred to a four-year university in Minnesota to complete his degree and play football — which he did very well. In the interim he was tried and found guilty of the drug charge, but he was given a delayed sentence to allow him to complete his college degree. After the completion of his degree he was to serve a nine year sentence.

Willie’s understanding was that his case would be reviewed at the end of his college career and that he would almost certainly be placed on probation (and not sent to jail) if he kept his nose clean — which he did. He continued to work on his degree and he played football so well he was drafted by an N.F.L. team in the ninth round. When it was announced that he had been drafted a reporter form his home town ran a story about his brush with the law and his later success. In the ensuing confusion the judge who had tried Willie’s case three years previously held  a press conference and, noting that athletes should not be given special treatment, repeated her ruling that Willie was to serve nine years in prison as soon as he completed his degree. The N.F.L. team that had drafted Willie immediately announced the they were no longer interested in Willie.

Did the judge do the right thing? What do you think?

Genie Out Of The Bottle

You have doubtless heard about the sex scandal involving the basketball team at the University of Louisville. It is reported (again and again) that for a number of years a woman by the name of Katina Powell procured prostitutes and exotic dancers to attend to the needs and urges of basketball recruits in order to entice them into enrolling in the university. Reportedly this has cost the university “tens of thousands” of dollars and involved numerous high school recruits and their fathers or guardians over a number of years.

This is sensational and the media love sensational stories so it will become the hottest story around —  at least until interest wanes. But the real questions lie at the heart of this sort of thing, because we must suppose that Louisville is not the only school to be involved in doing whatever it takes to win. They are simply the ones that got caught, because Powell wrote a book about it and the police and the NCAA are investigating the reports, which appear to be well founded.  The real question is how this sort of thing can be stopped. And the answer, I fear, is that it cannot be stopped. There is simply too much money involved in Division I basketball and football to put an end to the sordid activities that coaches will resort to the get a “leg up” on the competition. And while  Rick Pitino. the coach at Louisville, has denied any knowledge of these going-on, it beggars belief that the man would not be fully aware of these activities. As a recent Yahoo News story notes:

Pitino has repeatedly denied any knowledge of strippers being paid to dance for or have sex with recruits, but in Powell’s first interview since her book was published, she reiterated to ESPN she finds that hard to believe.

Said Powell: “Four years, a boatload of recruits, a boatload of dancers, loud music, alcohol, security, cameras, basketball players who came in [to the dorm] at will … ”

What will be interesting now will be how Louisville responds. Will the school try to get ahead of potential NCAA sanctions and self-impose penalties or encourage Pitino to step down? Or will it do nothing besides continuing to insist it’s still investigating the veracity of Powell’s claims?

The standard response, of course, is that “everyone does it” and that is supposed to count as moral justification. But, even if true, it does not. I have written about the scandals involving athletes before (some would say endlessly) and this one really doesn’t differ in kind from the rest; it is simply more sensational because of the role played by prostitutes and the involvement of high school students — and their fathers or guardians. Louisville will almost certainly be found guilty as charged. The coach and perhaps the athletics director might be fired and there will be NCAA penalties. Whatever does occur, the whole thing will soon go the way of Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, and scores of other schools involved in scandals. It will be forgotten. What matters here is the success of the teams and, of course, the revenue they bring in.

I have suggested in the past that all athletes at Division I universities should be paid a decent salary and treated as professionals. If they then want to attend college they can pay tuition like everyone else. If not, they can spend it as they like and gamble on the remote possibility that they will be selected in the NFL or the NBA and become Professionals with a capital “P.” But this would not begin to solve the problems that surround college athletics because, they involve such huge amounts of money and, as in this case, they also involve young people who aren’t even enrolled at the school. There is simply no way to put a stop to this sort of transgression. The demand for sports on television — where the bulk of the money is generated — is insatiable and the networks couldn’t stop broadcasting the contests even if they wanted to. And, clearly, they don’t want to. They also make huge amounts of money.

Didn’t Jesus warn us all long ago that avarice is the root of all evil? These issues, along with many others too numerous to mention, seem to bear this out. In any event, moralizing aside, the genie is out of the bottle and there really doesn’t seem to be any way to put it back.

Levelling Down

I have blogged before about the so-called “self-esteem” movement that has taken over the thinking (?) of those who run our schools. The idea is to tell everyone that they are wonderful and this is supposed to inspire them to excellence. The problem is that all the data show this is false, that kids know it’s a lie and they simply do as little as possible and wait to be told how wonderful they are. Everyone gets the trophy, not just those who actually have earned it. The woman who has studied this movement in detail and written the definitive book on the subject is Maureen Stout who has taught at all levels from kindergarten through college and while initially a supporter of the movement, came to realize the damage it was doing in the schools.

Professor Stout holds a PhD in Education from UCLA and now teaches at California State University in Northridge. In 2000 she wrote The Feel-Good Curriculum: The Dumbing Down of America’s Kids in the Name of Self Esteem.  One of the key chapters begins as follows:

“. . .the self-esteem movement has slowly infiltrated education to the point that today most educators believe developing self-esteem to be one of the primary purposes of public education. As a result, schools are providing more courses in ‘life skills’ and less attention on academics, which are the sore of a liberal education. The very essence of public schooling is thus being transformed. We are in danger of producing individuals who are expert at knowing how they feel rather than educated individuals who know how to think.. . .The self-esteem movement infiltrates virtually every aspect of schooling from teaching methods to evaluation to curriculum planning. It is the most popular of all the fads, and the most dangerous. . . .The preponderance of evidence illustrates that self-esteem is irrelevant in all areas of education.”

I recall the comment of one of the legislators in California — a state where the self-esteem movement received state-wide impetus from the legislature and has become the accepted thinking of those who determine education policy in that state — who  was confronted by the hard evidence that the self-esteem movement actually thwarts development in children and said “I don’t care what the evidence shows. I know it works.” In a word, don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s made up.

In any event, the latest sad chapter in this ongoing saga comes not from California, but from a Minneapolis suburb where the annual honors banquet applauding the efforts of the brightest and best students in the Senior class was cancelled because it (presumably) hurt the feelings of those kids who did not and, in some cases, simply could not, achieve those honors themselves. The plan is to give all the kids some sort of recognition for the efforts they expend in school — presumably for breathing in and breathing out, certainly not for merit. Indeed, merit has pretty much gone out the window.

This is the result of a trend that goes far back beyond the self-esteem movement, namely, the egalitarianism that has resulted from the recognition that human rights must be acknowledged in all men and women regardless of their circumstances. The notion of human rights is a vital moral precept and one of the prizes of the Enlightenment; it is precious indeed. But it has sired some peculiar off-spring — such as the notion that any attempt to point out differences among people amounts to “discrimination,” and this is a bad thing. It has also fostered the self-esteem movement in the schools, which has, in turn, given rise to the absurd notion that we dare not call attention to the achievements of the best and the brightest because someone’s feelings might be hurt.  To which I say, “tough noogies, that’s life!” Some people are deserving of praise because they excel and if we want our kids to achieve anything resembling excellence we need to point out those who stand above the rest.

In the 1960s Gabriel Marcel noted the danger of the egalitarian movement, its tendency to “level down” the population, to make mediocre the norm, to lower expectations and demands and give everyone credit whether it was deserved or not. In the schools, as Maureen Stout pointed out, it is “dangerous,” because it destroys the urge on the part of bright kids to show their stuff and it fosters the lie that everyone is excellent when, in fact, only a few are. If everyone is excellent, then no one is. The word loses meaning. We need to recognize and reward merit and excellence or they will disappear forever. That’s the danger Professor Stout is pointing to. And she’s right.

The Right to Whinge

I am using one of my new, favorite words that I picked up from watching British mysteries on PBS. The word “whinge” means to whine, or complain bitterly and relentlessly (OK I added the latter based on my own experience. The dictionary simply says “to whine.”). In a recent blog I mentioned how relieved we are here in Minnesota that Spring has finally arrived. But this won’t keep us from whinging about the weather. In fact, I do believe Minnesotans take pride in the fact that the weather in this part of the world goes from one extreme to the other in the blink of an eye. It gives us bragging rights. Just last week it was in the 80’s and a couple of nights ago it was below freezing with snow in the forecast and frost on the roofs in the morning. While not that unusual this is remarkable, but it gives us grounds for some good old whinging. We can complain with the best of them. And since when people meet at the post office or the grocery store they don’t seem to have much to talk about except the weather, Minnesota’s weather gives us something to keep us going for several minutes:

Hey, how you doin’?

Great, you?

Great, but how about this weather? Do you believe it?

I know! Yesterday we were playing golf and today we had to dig out the parkas again.

Yeah, don’t ever put them away until late June. I’ve seen it snow as late as Memorial Day.

I don’t think we’re going to have Spring this year: we’ll just go right from Winter to Summer!

You got that right!

And so on. This could easily go on for several minutes, at least. Contrast that with a meeting between two people in, say, Santa Barbara:

Hey, how you doin’?

Great, and you?

And that’s pretty much it. There really isn’t much to talk about as far as the weather goes because it always seems to be the same. At least it was when I spent a month there many years ago. Every day sunny and warm with temperatures in the middle 70’s. Glorious. But boring as hell. And it leaves two strangers with nothing whatever to talk about! Or, more importantly, to whinge about. If these two people don’t drive the same kind of car, didn’t attend the same schools, or the local teams didn’t play last night, they have nothing more to say to one another. I don’t know how they do it! While we in Minnesota can complain about the cold in the Winters and turn about and complain just as loudly and long about the damnable heat in the Summers, where it can reach 100 degrees. There’s simply no predicting what tomorrow will bring. Except that it will bring loud complaints and a quiet sense of pride from those of us in Minnesota who know it makes us tough and we will always have a topic to talk about when we meet people on the streets.

[You probably heard that Willie Manning (yesterday’s blog) got a stay of execution. It does give one hope. Have a great day.  I’m on a break. ‘See you in about a week.]

Spring Has Sprung

It appears that Spring has finally come to the Upper Midwest. It has been a long Winter with snow on the ground since last December, snow which is still here and there on the North side of the groves and hedge rows. And while snow is in recent forecasts [!], we know it will be wet and will not stay around for very long. The temperatures are finally on the move upwards and the sounds and smells of another Spring are in the air.

Smells like starter-fuel for charcoal cookers, exhaust from lawnmowers and (speaking of sounds) motorcycles. Ah yes! The sounds of Spring, like the barking dogs tied outside by distracted owners who want to share the delights of dog-ownership with the folks in the block, or the cars the kids drive with their window open wide and the radio turned all the way up, destroying both tranquility and ear drums. I saw one the other day that had a sign in the back window: “If the music’s to loud, your to old.” Aside from the very loose usage of the word “music” this is assuredly an indictment of our education system if there ever was one! I guess I’m to old. In any event, the sights are almost as delightful, with fifth wheels and trailers returned to the lawns  and driveways from wherever they have been hibernating over the Winter, and large people walking around in shorts and tank tops with their all-too abundant flesh threatening to escape with every step, proving once again that some people are oblivious. It’s worthy of note in this regard that Minnesotans of all sizes and descriptions go by the calendar when it comes to choosing appropriate attire: if it’s April they will wear the shorts and tank tops even if the temperatures are around freezing! But Spring is on its way — finally — and while Emerson is supposed to have said that Spring is the saddest time of the year there is a great deal to delight in.

Brown-headed Thrush

Brown-headed Thrush

There are  the sounds of balls striking bats, golf clubs, and tennis rackets and the smells of new-mowed grass and blooming flowers. And for those of us who have been suffering from cabin fever for the past months, these sounds make up for the unpleasantness of loud radios, gassy smells, and excessive flesh mentioned above. And the ponds and rivers that were dry last Summer are full and flowing — at least at present. Add to these sights and sounds the melodies of the returning birds and the stunning colors they bring with them as the males preen and strut in their attempts to attract the most eligible mates. It’s not only the young men and women whose thoughts turn to love in the Spring: all of animal nature seems to be tuned into the Spring vibrations. It’s been a long Winter, but at last Spring has sprung in the Northern Plains.  We can’t all live in the tropics (Ecuador, for example), and not all Minnesotans are “snow birds” who head South for the Winter, so when the good weather returns those of us who have stuck it out over the Winter delight in the return of Spring and take the bad along with the immense good. As one of my favorite Gordon Bok songs says: “the world is always turning toward the morning,” and hope Springs eternal.