Friday, February 27, 2009

"Let's Give Real Meaning to Education"

“Education.” That is probably the most over-used and least understood word in the lexicon of the English language. It is the great promise and the big lie for the political establishment. When there are promises to be made that belie specifics, “education” is the fallback position of choice. Those who are vested with breathing life into that term are probably the most maligned professionals in our society for efforts that are largely the scorn of the many and the gratitude of the few.

Education, at any given point in history, is a reflection of the social and cultural mores of the time. However, sad to say, what was once a noble and respected professional calling, supported by the society of which it was a part, has morphed into an endeavor that must operate in a milieu that is void of controversy. They must be all things to all people, with significant contradictions in the perception of what education should be. School Administrators want to avoid offending the School Board, the PTA and parents, most of whom are convinced that the uniting of their individual sperm and ovum was ordained by the Divine hand itself, and inspired with the belief that their progeny are above the need for structure and discipline. The parents who believe it are pathetic and the children who are the product of those belief systems are insufferable.

If any reasonably inquisitive mind wants to understand contemporary educational systems, one need only embark on a rudimentary venture into an examination of the society around them. Today’s society is the culmination of more than a half-century of progressively greater permissiveness that has, in my humble opinion, brought us to the brink of total anarchy. Life and life’s values are whatever the traffic will bear. We are no longer shocked by anything. In fact, we have become too understanding and too tolerant. Mature and responsible adults become what they are by the limits that are placed and enforced on their behavior in the process of “growing up.” I don’t see much of that happening anymore.

Crime is at an all-time high. The types and numbers of crimes have increased in geometrical proportion. Drugs? Eh, what’s the big deal? Burglaries? Commonplace. Oh well, s--t happens. Juveniles murdering their classmates, their teachers, their parents? Ho hum. Violent sex offenders now reside among us in our neighborhoods. What’s the problem? We can’t restrict their civil rights! I could go on, but I have made my point, and it sure as hell isn‘t very pretty.

If one wants to piece together a collage of the values upon which a society rests, all he/she has to do is watch what we regard as entertainment such as movies, television programs, music, videos, advertising, etc. It is all about vanity, sexual prowess, eternal youth and the body beautiful. The preponderance of men are cast as completely obsessed with erectile dysfunction. Given the volume of exposure to what is regarded as fashionable by women, one could easily conclude that there is just a bit of the slut in the makeup of a large part of the female population. Whatever is considered fashionable is a must. Frankly, I am weary of the never-ending display of cleavage and pendulous breasts. Titillating though it all may be, few are outstanding examples of divine art. As a matter of fact, it is exhibitionism bordering on outright vulgarity. However, you can bet your bippy that, should any male make an off-color remark about the fashion statement of a female co-worker, he would be slapped with a sexual harassment suit so fast his head would reel! I shudder at the thought of what the male response would be if men’s fashions became as daring as those of the female of the species. God help us! Common decency requires that some aspects of our humanly conduct be within the realm of what is considered to be “private.” We need to refocus on common standards of decency rather than on what is “in.” But, that requires individual standards of conviction and the attendant courage that must of necessity go with them. There doesn’t seem to be much of that around anymore.

For a civilized society to exist, it must rest on a foundation of moral values. By “moral,” I am not limiting my definition to sexual mores (although that is usually the first thought that comes to mind nowadays). It refers to the character of the people who comprise that society. Character is a learned set of values, not genetic or inherited. Parents can teach character, but only the society of which they are a part can enforce the prevailing standards of morality that make a civil society possible.

I vividly recall, a few years ago, when I was invited to meet with a couple of classes at a local high school for the purpose of recounting and discussing my experiences from working and living in an Islamic country. As I walked into each of the classrooms, I was stunned to see the complete antithesis of what I had expected. There were no desk. Rather, there were circular tables around which was seated the biggest bunch of poorly groomed and disinterested young humanoids imaginable. There was no discipline and, obviously, no standards of conduct. Some were reclining in their chairs, others were slouched over with their heads resting on the tables. Others were distracted by electronic devices or other “toys,” with no indication of a modicum of interest in what the class was all about. However, what most negatively impressed me was how the teachers looked exactly like the students! All were wearing the uniform of the culture - blue jeans, athletic shoes and tops that looked as if they were purchased at a rummage sale. I could not help but wonder who convinced the educators that the only way to penetrate the calcified cranial tissue of the students was to look and act just like them. The entire scene was not only depressing, but more an exercise in assimilation than in discipline. Who decreed that youth has a corner on what is savvy and relevant, rather than the teachers who are supposedly educating them and shaping their minds? Who should be looking up to whom? There is no doubt that the students were getting short-changed, big time. I could find absolutely no semblance of what could remotely be called a role model that could and should command respect.

I believe that we, as a society, have a solemn obligation to clearly reflect on what we should mirror back to the youth of this country. By abdicating that responsibility to the media, celebrities, sports heroes, etc., we are surely well on the road to a lost civilization. We need to seriously reflect on what made this country great and how we got to where we are. It used to be that childhood and adolescence was the apprenticeship for adulthood. I think we have lost sight of that fact and now might just be the time to re-visit that concept, for our own individual and collective welfare, and that of our children standing on the threshold of inheriting all that we have wrought.

When it comes to education, there has to be a shared responsibility between parents, educators and society. We must all work in concert with each other in order to provide the stability and continuity required for a sound journey leading to a lasting set of values that will sustain our children from youth to and through adulthood. The hopes, dreams and successes of just one child is infinitely more important to the world than are all the diversions we set before them in the name of entertainment, and prematurely fostering independence long before it is wise to do so. There is more to life than having fun, hanging out and blankly staring into an electronic device that enables our children to isolate themselves from the world around them. The richness of this one life can only be found by raising our eyes and actively engaging our fellow human beings. To the extent that parents and teachers, working in concert with each other, foster that as something to be valued and cultivated, the destructive estrangement from all that is distinctive and wonderful about God’s greatest creation - people - will be lost and the world will be the poorer for it.

We cannot have a system of education that is not based on sound discipline. By “discipline,” I am not referring to fear and corporeal punishment. That is wholly inappropriate and is much too prone to excesses for any serious consideration. On the other hand, there should be a set of standards and expectations to which students, teachers and, yes, parents all subscribe. Instructors and staff should be required to dress as adults and to a standard that sets them apart from their students, and reflect the professionals they are.

There should be standards of conduct and expectations codified and committed to writing for the benefit of parents, students, teachers and school administrators. At the beginning of each academic year, that document should be executed with a clear understanding of the consequences for violating those standards. Parents should not be allowed to intimidate educators, but should be required to assume their rightful responsibilities as one part of the triumvirate shared by educators and school administrators for the benefit of the student. Teachers and educators deserve to be protected from the whimsical ignorance of doting parents.

I view the process of education as falling along a continuum from K through university, beginning with training, followed by teaching and leading to education. From basic skills to intellectual pursuits. For that to be a meaningful and developmental process, students and parents must, of necessity, defer to the professionals to whom we have entrusted that responsibility, at every step of the way. Parents do not tell NASA how to launch satellites into outer space, nor should they tell educators how to educate their children. The latter is no less a professional pursuit than the former. Realizing one’s own limitations is the surest sign of maturity, so parents “listen up!”

I believe there is much to be said about the European model of education where, at some point, by objective means, students are identified as having either an aptitude for vocational careers or academic pursuits. Further, the Europeans respect the value of vocational endeavors, far more than do we Americans. For example, I am at the mercy of every skilled tradesman there is. Am I suicidal because of it? No, but I certainly know and defer to my many limitations, and I am only too pleased to acknowledge what they have that I don’t.

Today, however, I see an erosion of the intellectual pursuits and ferment that should be at the apex of our college and university experiences. My fear is that we have become the means for a fast track to wealth (business schools) and hi-tech schools that are beholden to the engineering, electronics and information technologies at the expense of liberal arts and intellectual disciplines. I fear that studies of the knowledge and wisdom of the ages that have served as the basis for pushing back the barriers of ignorance and indifference are receiving scant attention in the priorities of academia. I would submit, do we need a foundation in government, ethics, philosophy, morality, logic, literature, etc., any less than in days gone by? The value of a liberal arts education is timeless and eternal. When it comes to those virtues, the world seems to be on a starvation diet. Doing is “in;” thinking is out. That is not only dangerous, but frightening to contemplate.

By the time students graduate from high school, they should be firmly grounded in a well-rounded education that prepares them to be knowledgeable and responsible citizens. They should, also, know that they are embarking on a path that will prepare them for a vocation or career in life that will develop their potential to the fullest for a rewarding life as responsible and valued members of society.

I recall once seeing a photocopy of a sign pinned to the bulletin board in the office of one of my colleagues that read, GOD DOESN’T MAKE JUNK! Reflecting on those words gives pause as to where we are and where we should be going. It is time we tore down the barriers that make so many of us believe that we are inherently better than others and, ipso facto, entitles us to a larger share of the pie. Better to embark on a goal of cleaning up the junkyards of humanity and open the doors to all who simply want a piece of the pie.

Cowboy Bob
February 27, 2009

Friday, February 13, 2009

“With All Due Respect …………….”

........ Mr. President. Who are you, really, and what do you stand for? After having watched your meteoric rise throughout the campaign and having shed tears of joy when you were elected, I now find myself totally bewildered as to who and what the real Barack Obama is. What do you represent? Where on the political spectrum are you?

I thought it was a bit imperious as I watched the series of your speeches that started with your run for the presidency on the steps of the Old Capital Building in Springfield, and culminating with your victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park. I first wrote them off as building momentum for the finish line. Then, I began to wonder if this guy believes his own press. Is he a man of the people or a front for the established political and economic influentials inside the Beltway? I am still uneasy and my unease is growing.

The appointments to your administration have raised even more questions and have deepened my doubts. It is almost as if the vestigial remnants of the Clinton Administration were freeze dried in 2000 only to be reconstituted in 2009. That scares me. Why do the Clintons seem to have a hold on positions of prominence in your administration? Where are all those people who were going to come riding into Washington on your coat tails, who think outside the box and who were going to help you bring about the sweeping changes you so eloquently promised over the preceding two years? I can’t put my finger on one.

I will admit to being a simple man. However, I come from the school that believes certain character traits are absolute, not situational or transitory. It is kind of like the old adage to the effect that a woman cannot be a little bit pregnant. Either she is or she isn‘t. You are either a person of character or you are not. You are either squeaky clean or you are not. There are no shades of gray. I see several examples of people brought into your administration who have backgrounds that are cause for pause by those of us in the hinterlands and who are on the receiving end of what is wrought by the powers in Washington. Character and integrity that are solid foster confidence; those that are transitory do not. For example:

1. Bill Clinton signed into law the legislation that removed controls from the
Financial industries. He, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers aided and abetted Phil Gramm in letting the wild horses out of the corral. Robert Rubin, in particular, stands out as an opportunistic rogue. He left his post as Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury for a lucrative job as CEO of Lehman Brothers, only to leave following the recent economic meltdown for a better deal at another Wall Street firm. It only stands to reason that, fortunately, he was only an advisor to you on your transition team. However, Larry Summers followed Rubin as Clinton’s Secretary of the Treasury and, voila, he is now your Chief Economic Advisor. How can you reconcile those disparities with the integrity your administration has led us to believe you hold inviolate?

2. Tom Daschle went down in flames, as he should have. There was nothing subtle as to how he capitalized on his years in the United States Senate after he was voted out. His role as a “consultant” was much more egregious than his failure to pay taxes, and would clearly have placed him in a conflict-of-interest position in his role as Secretary of Health & Human Services. His wife is an even more glaring example of how connections in Washington can be turned into pure gold.

3. Then there is the rather glaring example of Timothy Geithner, another
refugee from the Clinton Administration. He managed to squeak through despite his “mistake” in not paying his taxes. Another example of being a little bit pregnant, no doubt. There are still unanswered questions as to his relationship to Wall Street while he was head of the Fed in New York.

4. Another example of how fluid your standards seem to be is making an exception for a major lobbyist at Raytheon, a huge defense contractor, to serve in a position of prominence in the Defense Department. Are you not familiar with Dwight Eisenhower’s dire predictions of the dangers from a growing military-industrial complex? If there was ever a government agency that hemorrhages money, the Pentagon is surely at the top of the heap.

The foregoing are but a few examples of why I am inclined to believe your character may well be more a matter of ideals for public consumption, than they are principles which you hold to be inviolate. You have led us to believe there is only one standard of justice for all Americans. Yet, we see evidence that the old double standard that differentiates Washington from the rest of us is still very much alive and well. How can this be?

Why are we being led to believe that some of the exceptions in appointments to your cabinet and staff positions are because there are no others who are as well qualified? If anything is universally true, it is that there is no such thing as an indispensable man. Surely, you don’t believe otherwise.

Are you na├»ve or just another politician who talks out of both sides of his mouth, and whose principles are as fluid as the waters of the Potomac? Do you genuinely believe in change and the urgent need to fix the system, or do you, also, play to the entrenched interests and power structure so firmly ingrained in the Washington Establishment, New York Banking Houses and the Eastern Elite, all the while assuaging the heartland of American that any doubts it may be having about you have no foundation in fact. You profess to be one of them with their best interests at heart. On the other hand, credibility is when a person’s words are consistent with his deeds. I don’t see evidence to necessarily support that.

I genuinely commend you for your position on the bi-partisan effort to reach out to the Republicans and involve them in your efforts to turn the current economic catastrophe around. By meeting with them on Capital Hill, inviting them to the White House, etc. further demonstrate to me your sincerity in that regard. What have you gotten in return? A unified front against you and the Democratic majority in Congress on your efforts to attach any sense of urgency to your programs on behalf of the American people. They have failed to draft a comprehensive alternative plan that would provide some semblance of critical and creative thought. Rather, they nit-pick what is on the table, citing the old tired latitudes and platitudes as the end all for curing the nation’s ills -- tax cuts and an unencumbered free market. Where in God’s name have they been for the last 30 years?

You have performed within the context of the classic definition of an “appeaser.” You kept feeding the alligators hoping they would eat you last. As a result, you forfeited a significant part of your personal power and that of the office you hold. It will take some doing to get it back.

I think it is time for the Democrats to unite and play hardball. They need to understand that extending the presidential hand of kindness is not synonymous with weakness. Let them filibuster so the American public can see how little they have to offer, when all they are doing is obstructing and delaying the urgent relief needed for the nation, naively hoping it will enhance their chances for re-election in 2010. They don’t deserve compromise and assuaging in order to preserve what little image they still have, and to help them burnish their reputations for 2010. Better to leave that to Sarah Palin.

I carry one big disappointment specific to you, Mr. President. Progressives are a large part of the base of support that got you elected to the presidency. I expected to see that fact reflected in your administration, which is instead painfully absent. I think you owe us more. Although the ideals of Paul Wellstone may have long ago faded into the vastness of time, his was a vision that extended far into the future and deserves to be a part of the national discourse on what this country needs in order to thrive and prosper, now and into the future. I don’t see one scintilla of evidence that the advice and counsel from that school has been sought as part of your efforts at inclusiveness. If Honest Abe were at the helm, I rather imagine that school of thought would be prominent among those he would count among his collection of adversaries.

Progressives are, by nature, idealists. They have put a lot of stock in you. However, that idealism will only last so long and it will begin to evolve into cynicism. When that happens, those among them who are now prominent among your staunchest supporters will become your harshest critics. There are already indications that it may well have started.

Whether it is by choice or out of necessity, you appear to be a true centrist. Perhaps that is the only viable position most likely to survive within the insulated bubble of Washington, D.C. Why? Perhaps it is just a reflection of the tendency by those who go to the polls, crying for dramatic change, but all too willing to accept a state of equilibrium pegged at the lowest level of mediocrity. If that is indeed the case, we are all the poorer for it.

On second thought, is it not the mark of a true leader to raise the level of awareness among the common folks as to what is worth fighting for and is in their best interests and, hence, those of the nation? This is not a time for consensus building, but a time for bold and decisive leadership. Let that be the foundation upon which we build our future.

Cowboy Bob
February 13, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"The Daschle Debacle"

I have to admit that I was more than surprised that Washington cronyism did not do a better job of insulating Tom Daschle in his bid to become the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. I really expected him to sail through to confirmation without a glitch. Hmmm. Was it just a minor mistake that he failed to pay $128,000 in overdue taxes or was there something more behind it all?

I am inclined to think it is something much more egregious than we are to believe. His many years as a “consultant” to healthcare and other clients since leaving his senate job have been a real boon to his net income. Why hasn’t there been greater exposure in the news media of this rather cozy relationship? I see an inherent conflict of interest in his consultancies and his ascension to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. It would have been an interesting balancing act to witness.

As if all that wasn’t enough, his wife is, or was, a very prominent lobbyist in the corridors of power in Washington. No doubt, she benefited a great deal from her husband’s long-standing tenure in the U.S. Senate and the reputation he gleaned from those years of public service. It almost seems sordid to the point of being incestuous.

Have you ever noticed the fat cats living within the Beltway only commit mistakes, simply forget or overlook questionable behavior? On the other hand, some poor bastard who breaks the law is presumed to be a criminal, outright, no matter the severity of his mistake, forgetfulness or oversight which, at that level on the food chain, we refer to as ‘crimes.’ Kind of smarts of a double standard to me.

Daschle’s conduct must have really been something, compared to the newly confirmed Secretary of the Treasury and the newly appointed Undersecretary of Defense, all of whom have compromised the standards of conduct we should expect of our public servants, and what I thought President Obama was going to require. I guess, rather than dealing in absolutes, what he meant was analogous to the notion that “it’s OK to be just a little bit pregnant.”

When it comes to certain human attributes, I tend to believe in absolutes. Either you are or you are not, and there is nothing in between. Unfortunately, we live with and accept a double standard when it comes to what we expect of family, friends and associates vs. what we will tolerate from our elected officials, the rich and the famous. That just doesn’t fly with me. Do phrases like “All men are created equal,” “No one is above the law,” “Justice is blind,” etc., only have transitory meaning when uttered within the context of lofty speeches and admonitions on ceremonial occasions? Were that the case, the whole concept of equality would ring hollow in the ears of us all. Therefore, why do we tolerate it, much less condone it?

Is that why, when someone kills numbers of people, he/she is a serial killer or mass murderer, destined for life without parole or death by lethal injection? On the other hand, when the President, Vice-President, Secretary of Defense, their associates and minions consign thousands to an early death, or enable their cronies to engage in profiteering, torture, etc., they get a free pass. Are not their crimes just as abhorrent, or more so, than are those of petty criminals? Does justice not shout out for them to be held publicly accountable for their acts before the nation and, indeed, the world? However, our newly elected president has said he prefers to look to the future and not dwell on the past. Sounds like a free pass for some of the worst criminals in our national history. There is nothing fair, right or just about that position at all.

I was really pumped up during Barack Obama’s long journey to the White House. I really believed he was different from those who live within the bubble of our nation’s capitol. I truly believed he marched to a different drummer, and held himself to a higher standard than the run-of-the-mill politicians. It has taken just two short weeks for me to begin cooling on what I believed vs. what I am seeing. As far as I am concerned, the times call for strong and decisive leadership, consummate statesmanship, and an ironclad respect for and commitment to the rule of law. What I see in the President is more akin to the group facilitator in organizational development striving for consensus. That is not what we need and I am somewhat uncomfortable that isn’t what we are getting.

Another thing that sticks in my craw is, whenever there is a scandal or criminal conduct by one of our nation’s leaders, the excuse we are given for letting them off Scot-free or with a slap on the wrist, is that the nation cannot be put through the agony it would cause. That is nothing more than an unmitigated pile of crap. It is an insult to the savvy, moral stamina and inherent decency of the American people. We want justice and fairness for everyone, not just a select few. We don’t buy into the notion of privileged characters. We have the fortitude to bear adversity and carry burdens far greater than our elected elites give us credit for.

The time has come for those we put in office to stop blowing smoke up our asses, give us the respect we deserve and hold every damned one of us to the same standards of conduct and to the rule of law. You owe us more and we deserve no less.

Time to get real!

Cowboy Bob
February 3, 2009