Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Education, and Essentials Thereof

I spent the past long weekend visiting a dear friend, an old Army buddy from all the way back in Basic training, Empty-Handed Army, as well as his lovely and perceptive wife.  We three spent nearly the whole waking portion of three days in deep discussion of a huge variety of topics, usually approaching them from a philosophical angle well outside my own comfort zone of practical applications and real-world historical proofs.  The topic of education popped up again and again, mirroring and developing conversations I'd had with friends during my past month on leave.  What are the goals of modern education?  Who ought to be seeking higher education?  How much does public policy contribute to educational success?  Previous conversations with a wide variety of educators -- Masters of Education students, inner-city "alternative" school teachers, radical unschooling homeschoolers --  all came back to the same point:  the overwhelming contributor to education success is cultural while public policy plays an important but fundamentally marginal role.  I was reminded of all of this by a reader comment shared by Jay Nordlinger:

If you asked a thousand people at random about their favorite teacher, how many would bring up how well the teacher employed education software, or whether she had a master’s degree from an ed school, or whether she took the class on fancy field trips, etc.?

To which Nordlinger follows up a quote from Dr. Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees:

Many years ago I participated in a discussion on the problem of international education. After many experts had presented their complicated theories, an old headmaster of a certain school got up and quietly said: “There is only one system of education, through love and one’s own example.”

Nordlinger responds, "I don’t think I have ever read anything truer on the subject of education."  I can only agree.  The children of the radical unschoolers I know are well-adjusted and whip-smart.  I have no doubt at all that my other friend's inner-city alternative school students would end up the same if they were brought up in a similar loving environment with good examples, no matter what the outward form of their schooling.  Public education policy cannot solve cultural failings that are antithetical to education.  Meanwhile, a functioning culture can mold successful youngsters even in the most dismal of school settings (cough cough Asians cough).  All of our arguments over education policy that are based on the presumption that the right policy will produce success are just wasted breath.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Leadership

Leadership means responsibility -- responsibility for the failure of one's subordinates just as for their successes.  It's an old-fashioned definition, I know, but I'm not the only one who still believes it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

On the Surge

It's a week late, but Walter Russell Mead's reflection on the 9th anniversary of 9/11 is still worth reading.  In particular, his commentary on the turning point in Iraq circa 2006 is spot-on:

[But] the Sunni Arabs of Iraq made a choice. They saw Al-Qaeda at its best — volunteer freedom fighters come from around the world to fight for them — and they saw America at its worst: incompetent, insensitive, vacillating and violent.  And they chose the United States... What those Sunni Arabs in Iraq came to understand is the basic truth of this conflict.  The war unleashed nine years ago is not a clash of civilizations between Islam and the west.  It is a clash between civilization and barbarism, and in that clash the Americans and true Muslims are on the same side.
The strategic realignment that occurred in the Iraq theater during 2006-2007 -- what was sold in the US media as "the Surge" -- laid a foundation for a far more momentous and far less heralded realignment of the Iraqi Sunni tribal leadership.
I wholeheartedly agree with Mead that the (self-)rehabilitation of Iraq's Sunni Arabs was more pivotal than any US Forces strategic decision.  Furthermore, I attest (from my own conversations with Iraqis themselves) that a significant element of that realignment was distinctly generational in nature.  The worst of the sectarian violence circa 2005-2006 was committed by Iraqis of my own generation, those with birthdates of roughly 1980-1990.  These young Iraqis came of age during Saddam's most desperate struggles to hold on to power by playing sects against one another, and after the US invasion were egged on by foreign extremists, primarily from Saudi Arabia and Iran among the Sunna and Shi'a, respectively, who both looked to a bountiful harvest in political influence and cold hard cash resulting from the bloody collapse of Iraq.  The violence finally ebbed when Iraqis of my parents' generation -- who fondly remember a long-ago era when nobody knew or cared who was Shi'i and who was Sunni -- stood up and said, "This is not the Iraq we remember, this is not the Iraq we hope for."

I, like Mead, am optimistic for the future of Iraq, and am guardedly so for the future of the Arab world as a whole, and that of the "Muslim World" beyond that. But it is worth remembering, with humility, how limited the American role in directing that future really is.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

An Excuse, or No Excuses

I apologize for the lack of posting this past week. I really did intend to, in fact I'd put off posting I was reasonably confident I could post regularly.  Look how that turned out.  This past week was spent in a leisurely journey from my homeland of Wisconsin back to my place of sojourn here at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  It was a lovely trip, during which I visited the Soprano in the Real World, A Round Unvarnish'd Tale, the Rebellious Pastor's Wife, the Elephant's Child, Excuses Excuses, Wit & Whim, Indiana Jane, the Scruffy Rube, and many other dear friends from high school, college, and beyond.  I attended the service of the installation of Reverend Matthew Harrison as my church body's president, and was blessed to hear the sermon delivered by Archbishop Walter Obare of the Lutheran Church of Kenya.  Does my personal life eerily mirror my blog following? Yeah, kinda.  Am I a ridiculous theology geek? Um, yupp.  No excuses.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On Mom's Basement

Over brunch with a college friend, the Soprano in the Real World, we chatted a bit about changing family structures in America.  An interesting point came up: American society in general is not particularly aware of how much we've lost as a culture with the loss of the extended multigenerational family and the enshrining of the nuclear family as the archetype.  Specifically we spoke of the loss of support structures for young people and particularly young parents, and how our culture strangely treats the 1950's-era nuclear family archetype as if it were something deeply traditional, when it isn't at all.  Yet there's very little general awareness that this significant cultural change even occurred, certainly far less than that of other contemporary changes such as women entering the workforce in large numbers.

Also, there's a really strange disconnect at work, where youth are expected to be more or less socially independent of their parents at the age of 18, while it is acceptable for them to remain economically dependent until their mid-20's at least.  I mean, which 26-year-old does our society consider more respectable? The auto mechanic who lives with his folks because he's still single and thus has no particular reason not to, or the grad student who is entering his eighth year of spending other peoples' money?  Living with one's parents in adulthood is often interpreted as a sign of hopeless immaturity, and yet our society doesn't seem to expect financial independence much before the age of 30.  This is almost a reversal of the situation that would have been the norm a century ago, where an 18-year-old might quickly be expected to become a productive member of society (and indeed likely be engaged in productive work much earlier), but would not be expected to move out of his parents' home until he married.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

On Baseball

I don't care for baseball.  While I don't care enough about any sport to really follow it, I'll still enjoy watching a good football or soccer game if I happen to catch one. But baseball fandom is just mystifying to me, so it's mostly with bemusement that I follow Peanuts From Heaven, the wacky baseball blog of two of my good school friends.  But today, the Scruffy Rube explains baseball fandom in terms I can understand and respect.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On Flags and Freedoms

Now that I'm back up and running on this whole regular blogging thing, I fear I'm obliged to make a comment on this Florida Koran-burning brouhaha.  Firstly, I'll make perfectly clear that this so-called pastor's plan to celebrate 9/11 with a ritual Koran-burning is both un-Christian and thoroughly contemptible.  It would be entirely appropriate for fine dining establishments to refuse him service and for elderly ladies to curse him in the street.  I do not think it appropriate, however, for a US general to advise a civilian on the proper use of constitutionally-protected speech.  Yes, if this church goes through with their imbecilic plan, US soldiers' lives will certainly be further endangered.  But there are all manner of ways that adherence to the Constitution makes the military's day-to-day work more difficult.  We could save more soldiers' lives if we set aside the fourth through eighth amendments, for example, but the Constitution of the United States is the very thing that we soldiers have sworn an oath to defend.  That is the fundamental mission of the armed forces, and that doesn't change just because a particular exercise of that constitutional freedom is foolhardy and reprehensible.

Road Trip of Freedom 2010

In early November, I'll be getting out of the Army after five years of service.  I've got some complicated feelings on the subject that I might eventually share, but one very uncomplicated feeling will certainly be the most incredible sense of relief and release.  What better way to celebrate my newly recovered freedom than to spend a few weeks roadtripping across this great country I spent five years of my life defending? Here's what my tentative itinerary looks like:

The only schedule so far is that I leave point A on the 4th of November, I need to be at point E by the 12th, and I'd like to finish at point L by Thanksgiving. Anyone anywhere within a couple hours of this general route who'd like me to stop by for a cup of coffee, a meal, or feels like offering me a bed (or couch) for the night, drop me a note and we'll see what we can work out.  Oh, and anyone who'd like to join me for this, or even just for a leg of it, we should talk.  I do really enjoy driving solo, but for 6,000 miles I'd certainly prefer some company.

Monday, September 6, 2010

P.J. O'Rourke on Afghanistan

If you're having trouble pinning down exactly what exactly our involvement in Afghanistan is all about (and anyone who isn't is lying to himself), you could do worse than reading P.J. O'Rourke's turn as the 72-hour expert:

Afghans think Americans have sided with the wrong people. It’s not that Afghans think Americans have sided with the wrong people in a systematic, strategic, or calculated way. It’s just that we came to a place that we didn’t know much about, where there are a lot of sides to be on, and we started siding with this side and that side and the other side. We were bound to wind up on the wrong side sometimes.

This parallels my own experiences in Iraq, where our leaders were very much focused on determining which factions in the government, tribes, and security forces were "good guys" and which were "bad guys", when most of the time it was really just "these guys" and "those guys".  At the same time, our leaders genuinely didn't think of this good-guy/bad-guy categorization process as "picking sides" while the locals most certainly did. Whichever faction in a given area first figured out the rules of the game and presented themselves to the local US forces as the "good guys" thus won the support of the world superpower, who nonetheless maintained delusions of impartiality.  Has it been mentioned recently that counterinsurgency is really really difficult? Sure,  and foreign societies are awfully tricky to understand even when you're not dodging bullets. On the other hand, sometimes I get the impression that we really weren't trying that hard.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

On Locavorism

I'm fascinated by food trends and issues of agricultural policy, and as someone who dreams of someday becoming a yeoman farmer himself, these are not purely abstract concerns.  The "locavore" movement is certainly good news to one who hopes to be able someday to market the produce of a small, diverse operation. So it's not with great enthusiasm that I agree with the analysis that several of the primary reasons people cite for buying local really don't add up, namely the environmental and food-security.  Here, a small local producer explains why the "buy local" food movement is just another sentimental feel-good trend, and why it would be an environmental disaster if it were actually embraced throughout the culture.

In short, the energy costs of agriculture and food shipment and processing are really quite small: we Americans use more energy powering our televisions than producing the food we eat. Without question the most significant environmental burden of our food production system is the sheer amount of land it takes up, so making a marginal reduction in the already-tiny transport costs at the expense of using more land is hardly a win for the environment.


Last night we celebrated my homecoming with a bonfire at my brother's place. Good food, good beer, good company.  A classic Wisconsin evening.

In one way the party was sort of late, since I got back stateside in July. And in another it was early, since I'm not quite done with the Army yet; I'm on leave right now and still have to go back to Fort Bragg, NC for a while after my leave is up.  But for now I'm home, and soon enough I'll be home for good.

A good friend of mine recently shared his own reflections on homecomings. I'd be hard-pressed to do better, so I'm happy just to share his.