Saturday, September 28, 2013

Civics Lesson for Republicans: Thank You, Senator McCain

Reflection on remarks made by Senator John McCain, September 25, 2013.  Video, quotes, and commentary by "Owen" at  Carbonated TV, a CNN site

"Do you argue to win?"  

Over thirty years of my asking that question, thousands of middle school students have said, not just yes, but heck, yes (to avoid demerits for stronger language).   

When I point out that the Constitution and Justice systems of our nation are built on the idea that we argue to find the truth, young students are baffled.   It's the simple idea (on which science is based) that truth emerges from fair, informed, reasonable debate.  From TV and bumper stickers, they thought our nation was built on "God, guns, and guts" or else something vague like "freedom" which seventh graders hear as "unfettered access for me to get stuff." 

"Freedom" is another word for mutual respect, period.   Anything else is license or privilege. 

Respect for each individual person means respecting property and freedom of speech; it comes with the responsibility to respect the others'. Inevitable collisions between a majority of people in a community and those in the minority will have to be resolved in compromise, arrived at through a process of, you guessed it, fair, informed, reasonable debate.

Though this process has frequently been marred by repression and violent conflict, US history is largely the story of our growing into "a more perfect union" in which fair, informed, reasonable debate can involve all who live here. 
Name-calling, obstruction of those procedures, gross generalizations, and the "win-at-all-costs" mindset poison the process.  They poison the spirit of the process.

Senator John McCain recently stood before the Senate to remind those who call themselves Conservative what Conservatism used to mean.  Responding to some twerp in his party who equated a stand against "Obamacare" with the stand that Germans should have made against Hitler (!), McCain methodically enumerates the ways in which fair, informed, reasonable debate and also compromise resulted in the Affordable Care Act. 

McCain cites more than a year of working through committees and hearings, a month of focused debate (weekends included), and dozens of Republican amendments accepted by the Democratic majority.  

McCain reminds his colleagues that the healthcare reform was a major issue in the last campaign.  "The people spoke... and re-elected the President," McCain concludes, adding, "much to my dismay."  He doesn't like it, but will he obstruct the law from going into effect?
"Elections have consequences," he admonishes those hotheads, and "respect [the] outcome of elections that reflect the will of the people."

That's real conservatism.  That's what makes America exceptional.  Those other guys who call themselves conservative?  They need to go back to seventh grade.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Redemption in NPR Reports

"Redemption" used to mean, for me, "going to heaven after you die."  Jesus' words give us some of that, but more often he's talking about redemption that we can make happen here on earth, the kind that NPR has given me in two arresting stories this month.
Shon Hopwood
Photo:  Sang Cho / Courtesy of The Daily of the University of Washington

First, reporter Melissa Block facilitated a conversation between law student - memoirist Shon Hopwood and the judge who sentenced him to prison for 11 years, Richard Kopf.  At the time of his sentencing, Hopwood promised to make a better life for himself, and the Judge skeptically said that he'd wait and see.    In prison, Shon discovered his aptitude for legal research and argument, leading to outstanding success helping his fellow inmates.  Now he has been appointed to the second-highest law court in the USA.  Judge Kopf says bluntly that his "gut feeling" about Hopwood's poor potential "sucked."   Hopwood graciously demurs. 

Then, this morning, I heard the follow-up to a report on doctors treating brain cancer in children.  That's hard enough to listen to, but this morning's report by Joe Palca focused on how pediatric oncologist Jim Olson can stay upbeat when he must say, so often, "This tumor will take your child's life."   Olson related how he had to stop on the way home from losing his first patient.  Instead of feeling crushed, he found himself elated, walking with a light step.  Why?  The parents of the child hadn't fled the hospital as he'd expected, but had sought him out, hugged him, and told him that his words had helped to "make our child's death as beautiful as his birth."

These are two stories of many that we hear on NPR in which thoughtful, intelligent people find ways to redeem horrible situations.

Joe Palca's report on pediatric oncologist Jim Olson

Melissa Block  Shon Hopwood, Judge Richard Kopf  (story audio: )

Photo:  Sang Cho / Courtesy of The Daily of the University of Washington

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Remembering Professor Irving Holley: The Essence of Education

It's natural that a teacher's personal web site would include tributes to his own outstanding teachers.  Recently, I learned that General and Professor Irving B. Holley has died, when his grandson sent me a kind note about my profile of his grandfather.  Professor Holley and his message should have the widest audience possible, so here's the text of my tribute to him:
One of five books by I.B. Holley.

The opening gambit in Dr. Holley's class shook me up more than any other single thing any teacher ever did. I knew immediately that my advisor John Clum had been right: "He'll make a scholar of you." Up to that point, I'd had no idea what that meant.

He welcomed us to a seminar on the meaning of "the liberal arts," a phrase that meant nothing to me, though I'd spent six years at two "liberal arts" institutions (Westminster, Duke). We would have readings to do for our class discussions (and shame and woe to anyone who ever came to class unprepared to discuss the readings in depth!), but we would have no quizzes, no tests, and only one graded assignment, to write a research paper. The first draft would be due in December; the second draft would be due in May. My eight classmates and I had been sitting at a seminar table for about five minutes while this wiry, feisty little general with cotton-white hair and thick glasses spoke to us. According to the schedule, we would be there for the next two hours. But what would we do all that time? Then he set an 8x10 black-and-white photograph on the table.

"As we pass this photograph around, I want you to make observations. You first." He handed it to me.

"I see Civil War soldiers around a cannon," I said.

"That," he said firmly, "was not an observation. It was an inference. We'll do those later. What do you see?"

Chastened, I said that I observed what appeared to be a cannon. He nodded his approval, and I passed the picture to the student on my right. Each one of us observed a detail. The ninth student had a tough time observing something that the rest of us hadn't seen. Then the picture returned to Gen. Holley. We were relieved to have passed our first test, and waited to hear the point of it.

"Now, do it again." He passed the picture to me once more.

The picture made the rounds three or four more times, as we saw more and more details that we hadn't noticed before. Then he passed it around several more times for us to make inferences from all the details.

What we did with that picture -- noticing details, drawing conclusions -- is what we then did with facts found in our research. He said that, by making us dig deeply under a "little postage stamp-sized" piece of the history of Duke University, we would learn one most valuable lesson: how much there is to know about everything. Or, how little we know about anything.

My first draft, grandly titled "A History of Drama at Duke," was the longest paper I'd ever written. There were twenty-some typed pages, with four pages of additional notes and sources. I'd read old news articles, interviewed retired professors who remembered early plays on campus, and I'd put together what I thought was a finely-written essay.

But on the title page, Dr. Holley wrote a whole paragraph about how the title mis-represented the paper. On every page he pointed out facts not verified, inferences not based on facts, whole decades of information that I'd skimmed over. He spent more time writing the comments than I'd spent writing the paper.

Especially he asked me over and over again, "How do you know this?" And ultimately he asked, "Okay, if this is factual, then, SO WHAT?"

This paper became my obsession, and my pleasure. The final draft contained not a single sentence from the first draft, it focused much more narrowly on just one thread -- how an academic program emerged from one of the many drama clubs on campus -- and was forty-some pages long with forty more pages of notes and sources, with an appendix listing every play performed between 1920s and 1979. That paper remains in the Duke Archives, and I'm proud to see it listed in their web site, and to learn that my work has served as a resource for other researchers in the years since.

There are two other anecdotes about him that I'd like to preserve here.
  • One time we came to class prepared to discuss a sixty-page essay that he'd reserved for us in the library to read. He surprised us by telling us to take out a piece of paper for a pop quiz! He asked only one question: "Define 'belletristic.'" None of us had any idea. "Yet you came to class after reading that essay, you saw that word, and none of you was even curious as to what it meant?" He was scornful. How could we hope to learn if we skipped over what we didn't know? I never made that mistake again.
  • He taught us to be careful to keep records of every source, every idea, and to keep these labeled and dated. I went out to buy a file cabinet, I started to use folders for different topics, and my whole approach to school work, and even to play, changed. I had to laugh, though, when he called me in for a conference. After some pleasantries, we both took out pads and we each made notes about what the other man was saying! It seemed to me that we could have saved time simply by writing down our own words and exchanging pads.

In my own teaching career, I've tried to give my junior high students a sense of what General Holley gave me.

The Sound and the Furry: Paws for Reflection

Reflection on THE SOUND AND THE FURRY by Spencer Quinn, latest in the Chet and Bernie detective series.  (Atria, division of Simon and Schuster, 2013.)

When a one-eyed bayou matron asks detective Bernie Little if he believes in heaven, Bernie answers, "I think it's right here...But in very small moments."  One page later in THE SOUND AND THE FURRY, Bernie hands a Slim Jim to his dog Chet, our narrator, who pauses to reflect, "What was all that talk about heaven and small moments?  Totally over my head... but for some reason I remembered it while I was downing that Slim Jim" (219).

That's as close as Chet gets to reflection, and as close as any book in this immensely fun series gets to theology, but it rings true.  Even during an ordeal underwater that has the reader panting for breath, Chet keeps up his own spirits, fighting for life moment to moment, wondering at his own endurance, the beauty of the moon: "And all around me sprang up tiny moons, bobbing on the water as far as I could see in every direction, beauties piled on beauty" (205).  Soon, from the moon, he hears Bernie's voice, "Doin' good, Chet, doin' good" (209).  These are moments of appreciation and love that sustain Chet through a hellish experience.

The author Spencer Quinn (pseudonym for Peter Abraham, a writer of suspense and YA mysteries) plays an extended game with us, moving the story forward on two tracks.  There's the Chet track, an exuberant and discursive inner monologue.  Then there's the Bernie track, moving the detective plot forward through canny questioning of people involved.  For instance, in Chapter Three, Bernie pushes for the straight story from his client Vannah, why she's hiring a detective in L.A. to find her brother-in-law in LA,, while Chet pushes under the desk to get at a bag of Cheetos.

The two tracks give us two kinds of language.  Much of Chet's narration dwells on telling observations of human body language, "one of my specialties" Chet tells us (279).  For instance, at an implied insult,
Bernie's head bobbed back the tiniest bit, kind of like he'd been hit.  He hadn't been hit ... but just the same I got ready to do something about it, hard to explain.  And at that very moment, I also felt Bernie's hand on my collar.  My brown collar, in case you're interested:  black is for dress-up. (31)
The Bernie track gives us repartee, as an appreciative bartender notes, "back-and-forth of witty nature" (53).   For example, after Bernie offers an addict fifty dollars for information, this exchange ensues:
"[Now] you're clean?" Bernie asked.
"Clean enough," said Mack.  "Maybe not squeaky."
Bernie lowered his bottle, gave Mack one of his direct looks.  "I'm paying for squeaky." (95)

In such dialogue, what's missing is more important than what's there, and it's not always just funny, as in this exchange between Bernie and drug dealer Cleotis, who has just recalled receiving $550 from the missing person at 9:10 p.m. the previous Saturday:
"You're very precise," Bernie said.
"This is a business," Cleotis said.  "I keep records."
"In your head?"
"It's that kind of business."
Bernie gave him a look.  "Someone like you --"
"Don't even say it," Cleotis said, the vagueness gone from his eyes now; in fact, they were a little too bright, in my opinion.
Bernie nodded. (152)
In the drug dealer's threatening silence, we get the self-knowledge and self-loathing that would have been diffused in some rant like "don't tell me I'm smart enough to be in a legitimate business.  You don't know the circumstances that brought me to this."

About the plot, I'm afraid that I was too wrapped up (or just rapt) by all those small moments of heaven that I didn't keep track of its ins and outs concerning shrimp, oil, and a gang from Texas.   But I appreciate the story for bringing us Chet's first exposure to the Mississippi River, New Orleans, rain, and an alligator.  It's typical yet delightful for Chet, facing the vast maw of an amphibian about to swallow him, to feel satisfaction at recognizing it from Animal Planet.

You've got to love a narrator like that!  Seriously.

Note:  See my reflection on Oblivion, a novel written by the same author under his true name, Peter Abrahams.