Saturday, April 26, 2014

My Bucket List -- A Lamentation

A few years ago, I learned for the first time about the concept of a “bucket list.”   Supposedly, it pertains to a list of things that each of us keeps in our head to refer to things that we would like to do or accomplish during our lifetimes.  The contents of each bucket list will obviously depend a lot on the quirks of each individual, but they are also tremendously influenced by the time, place and socio-economic status in which we reside.   For the people I grew up with, I would expect their bucket lists to be filled with exotic overseas trips, thrill seeking activities, tickets to see rock legends perform or athletes compete at the highest levels, or other recreational highs.   We are a consumerist society, and we love to go to exciting places and do “cool” things.  Anyone these days who dies without having experienced those highs is viewed to have not really lived.

I have to say, though, that I’m kind of old school.  Back in the day, not everyone had the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal, sky dive, or see an entertainer who was known all over the world.  They had different kinds of bucket lists, reflecting the opportunities that were available centuries in the past.  And I have some of those same items in mine.    

I’ve been thinking about bucket lists lately because I’m within months of getting a theology book out on the market, and that’s been on my bucket list since I first started writing about God in my early 20s.  But in the past week or so, I’ve been reminded of another item on my bucket list that seems destined never to leave the bucket.   That involves doing something meaningful to improve our system of education.  The educational field thoroughly obsessed me during my first several years as a practicing attorney.  In our final year in law school, we were required to write a lengthy publishable-quality paper, and I chose to write about the intersection of religion and education.   Once I began that writing project, I was hooked.  And in 1989, five years after I began my career as an attorney, I left the legal field for two full years to pursue my dream as an educational reformer.  I got a Master’s Degree in Teaching, taught my own public school classroom for a marking period, worked at an educational policy research firm, and co-authored a textbook chapter on the philosophy of education.  I found the field to be absolutely fascinating.  The only problem was that I never had the impression that I could get much accomplished as an educational reformer.   My choice, I felt, was between being a classroom teacher (which I seriously considered as a career) and being a professional tilter-at-windmills.  Sadly, I opted to go back to my old law job in 1991 and have been practicing law ever since.  So much for bucket lists.

Bucket lists aren’t the only thing I’ve been thinking about lately.  I’ve also been thinking about education policy – and, especially, why we seem to be fighting the same fights we were fighting back in the ‘80s.  I still hear teachers complain that they have little autonomy and that tests dominate and destroy the educational process.  I still hear from outside observers that the graduates of teacher education programs are some of the weakest students at universities – kind of reinforcing the old saw that “those who can’t do, teach.”  I still hear that educational success is 99% correlated with parental income.   And what’s perhaps most galling, I even hear justifications for why teachers are among the poorest paid professionals in the workplace, if indeed we even think of them as practitioners of a “profession.”   

Recently, Susana Martinez, New Mexico’s Governor and one of the most promising leaders of the Republican Party, actually suggested that teachers may be overpaid.  According to a Mother Jones article, Martinez was captured privately making a remark that I find to be surreal:  “During the campaign, we can’t say it, I guess, because it’s education, but I really keep going back to that . . . keeping the teachers from feeling the pain when they already don’t work, you know, two and a half months out of the year or three months out of the year but earn salaries at the same rate of people who do work 12 months a year.”

Theoretically, in a nation of 50 states, over 3000 counties, and countless elementary and secondary school classrooms, our educational system should be a laboratory of experimentation.  We would have studied over the course of generations which educational techniques work better than others, how much autonomy teachers need to inspire the love of learning among students, and whether teachers should be paid more like attorneys or toll booth operators.  You’d think by now that the federal government would sniff out the success stories and spread the word about them, without trying to replace the culture of experimentation with a top-down model.   You’d think that our system of education would be a reformer’s dream – a place that is as dynamic as the proverbial river of Heraclitus, which was never the same from one moment to the next.  

Unfortunately, for various reasons, there is no inertia quite like educational inertia.  Bad teachers stick around like glue, central administrators can’t resist the temptation to throw their weight around, and state and federal politicians fall in love with standardized tests, red tape, and the cut of their own jib.  What happens to the truly gifted educators?   They realize that they will get neither the autonomy they need to inspire nor the pay they need to live, so they bolt hither and yon to greener and more respected pastures. 

As for the would-be educational reformers who want to see those gifted teachers succeed, where do they go?   Apparently, they go back to their old law offices.   But not without a tear in their eyes, and a bucket list that remains stocked with one item too many.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Anti-Normalization and the New Normal

I’ve got Middle East peace on the brain today.  Tonight, I’m headed to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, the largest mosque in the Washington, D.C. area, for an interfaith Seder.   It’s a wonderful event, spearheaded by my friend Andrea Barron.   Andrea and I don’t agree on much when it comes to Middle East politics, but we agree on this: “normalization” is a good thing. 

Are you unfamiliar with the term “normalization” in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?  If so, I envy you, because whenever I contemplate that term, I simply get furious.   In case you haven’t heard about it, check out this link    As you’ll read there, “normalization” has become a derogatory word among many Palestinians, and refers to “the process of building open and reciprocal relations with Israel in all fields, including the political, economic, social, cultural, educational, legal, and security fields.”  In other words, when Jews and Palestinians get together to sing, dance, talk about issues, celebrate the Exodus, you name it … it’s a bad, bad thing.  And that is because, allegedly, it encourages everyone to believe that the status quo, which is seen as the outgrowth of the seizure of Palestinian land by a foreign invader, is an acceptable, “normal” situation.  

Recently, when Palestinian university students planned a trip to Auschwitz, they were criticized because – you guessed it – this was an expression of “normalization” behavior.   This travesty was recently chronicled in the Washington Post:   Not long ago, I attended a wonderful concert sponsored by a group called Heartbeat Jerusalem, which brings together young Israeli Jewish and Palestinian musicians who can really rock.  Their music inspired me to imagine a Middle East in which Jews and Arabs see themselves as cousins instead of enemies.  And yet, what did I learn after the concert?  That Heartbeat has now come under fire for promoting “normalization.”   

                The anti-normalization movement is just one form of the growing trend among the Hard Left to de-legitimize Israel and turn it into a pariah state – kind of like North Korea but without any ties to Dennis Rodman.  My guess is that this movement is soon going to split anti-Israel forces into a schism between the BDS gang who simply support boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel, and the anti-normalization gang who want to put Israel under a Spinoza-like ex-communication. (My hero was such a persona non-grata that members of his community were forbidden from standing within six feet from him or being under the same roof as the guy.)  Pretty soon, the BDSers will be calling themselves “moderates” because they are willing to get together with Zionists like me and tell us why Zionism is misguided … but at least they are willing to speak to us.  

                Fortunately, the anti-normalization craze has yet to become the new normal in the Middle East Peace movement.  But believe me, this attitude and its little brother, BDS, have left quite a mark.   Taken together, they have convinced most of my fellow peaceniks that if Israel wants peace with the Palestinians, they can ask precious little from the Palestinians in return.   Perhaps the best example of this trend is the reaction of the peace movement toward Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state.  That demand sounds like no big deal to me.   It’s vague enough that a Palestinian who truly wants peace should be able to affirm it without letting go of the Palestinian narrative.  Hell, even Yasser Arafat was willing to say that he would accept Israel as a Jewish State.   See for yourself:  

                But Arafat is dead and buried.  And now the “new normal” is that the idea of accepting Israel as a Jewish State is a non-starter for Palestinians.  What’s more, peacenik organizations like J-Street balk at asking the Palestinians to make a concession on that point – at least not now.   Take a look at J-Street’s statement on the subject; you’ll find it to be the epitome of milquetoast:  

                Folks, I have heard a zillion and one justifications for why Israel shouldn’t be a Jewish State.  And while I buy none of them, I can certainly appreciate why a portion of the Palestinian community would continue to oppose that notion.  What’s more, I’ve heard a zillion and one justifications for why the Palestinian negotiators cannot accept Israel as a Jewish State at this point in the negotiations.   And while I buy none of them, I can certainly appreciate why the Palestinian negotiators might disagree with me.  But here’s what I cannot for the life of me stomach: why I am unaware of one single prominent Palestinian who is willing to support the idea of Israel as a Jewish State -- other than the dead Mr. Arafat.   Are the radical Israel-haters so dominant that they are scaring the Palestinian moderates into silence?   Or am I just that far out-of-touch with the moderate-Palestinian position these days?

                Either way, for a guy who spends as much time in the interfaith movement and the peace movement as I do, these are very troubling questions to ask.   Perhaps someone can shed some light for me tonight at the Seder.   In any event, whether I get some answers or don’t, this much I can continue to say:  Long live Israel as a Jewish State.  It has an honored place in my vision of a peaceful and just world.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Empathic Rationalism Begins At Home

Let me begin by wishing all of the Jews and Christians out there in cyberspace a Happy Passover and Easter.   My hope has been to be able to celebrate Passover with my family, but unfortunately, this may be difficult due to a lower-back problem that has seriously flared up in the past few days.   Accordingly, I have decided not to write a lengthy blog post this weekend and instead to spend my time lying in bed rather than typing on the computer.  But hopefully, I will be back to normal next week, or at least healthy enough to offer you all some provocative thoughts about an interesting topic.

Take care, and I’ll talk to you soon.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Scandals We Ignore (Part Two)

Sports scandals are a dime a dozen.   But they can generally be put into two categories.   First, you have the scandals that are primarily about the sports world.  These include stories about athletes who take performing enhancing drugs, referees or judges who take bribes, or sports leagues that cover up the mind-boggling health problems caused by their product.   In each case, I don’t doubt that there are broader societal tie-ins, but these problems center around the games themselves and not the society at large.  

I don’t wish to poo-poo the importance of those classic sports scandals.  But candidly, I am even more interested when a scandal appears in the world of sports that focuses your attention less on the actual competitions than on the outside world.  Recently, two such scandals come to mind.

Have you seen the latest edition of Golf Digest?  Here’s the cover: It kind of leaves an impression, doesn’t it?   The scantily-clad hottie is Paulina Gretzky, the daughter of Wayne Gretzky, the hockey legend.   Paulina is not an accomplished golfer.   In fact, as far as I can tell, that’s not even a sports bra she’s wearing; it’s just a plain old bra.
When my wife saw the cover, she said “I assume she’s not a golfer.  She’s the prize at the end of the  course.”   More precisely, she’s the prize won by professional golfer Dustin Johnson, who is now Wayne Gretzky’s son-in-law.   My wife, a former high school valedictorian and Harvard Law School graduate, is surely used to living in a society where men see models as more prize worthy than scholars.  But I would have expected that a prominent magazine like Golf Digest would have ducked that whole brains-versus-beauty debate and focused instead on athletic prowess.  Couldn’t they have found a really bright or really pretty woman who actually played on the LPGA tour?   Did they really have to bypass women’s golf entirely and just adorn their latest issue with an unbridled tribute to T&A?   Apparently so.

I was listening to ESPN yesterday morning when they were talking about this scandal.  Mike Golic, one of the two men to whom that network entrusts its coveted morning drive-time slot despite being an admitted steroid abuser, was explaining the reason for Golf Digest’s decision.   According to Golic, true golf fans will buy the magazine regardless of who they put on the cover.  But if they show Paulina Gretzsky’s skin and curves, perhaps they will also attract another element of “reader.”   I see the logic in that position.  Then again, I also see the logic in taking performance-enhancing drugs.   Do I see the logic in unabashed sexism?  Or, for that matter, racism?  I suppose so, as long as there is an election to be won or a dollar to be made by trading in filth.

Truth be told, Golf Digest is no different than many other well-established institutions in American life.  These institutions focus more on what’s on the outside of a woman’s head than what’s on the inside.   If this magazine had simply applied its attitude toward women with a bit of subtlety and ambiguity, it would have stayed under the radar screen, but it just couldn’t help itself.  It had to announce itself and its motivations – greed and disrespect come immediately to mind.

If you want to read about the magazine’s rationalization for its cover-girl decision, be my guest.  I haven’t bothered.  I know racism when I see it and I know sexism when I see it.  Golf Digest has just announced itself as a sexist rag.  It’s really that simple.  

Before I change topics, I have a simple message for Mr. Golic: this is one golf fan who has no intention of reading Golf Digest in the future.  I encourage the rest of you to follow suit.

At the risk of sounding indifferent to sexism, the second scandal that I’d like to discuss is even more disturbing to me than the first.   It has also been around a few weeks longer, and yet for some reason, I never seem to hear about it on TV.   Perhaps that’s because the behavior at issue is so old hat and accepted that it’s no longer scandalous to the society at large.  But if that’s not an indictment of our culture, nothing is.

The story to which I am referring is known as the University of North Carolina Fake Classes scandal.   You can read about it at the following link:   According to a non-anonymous whistleblower, that venerable institution has created all sorts of ways in which “scholar-athletes” can get university credit for doing middle school work, if in fact they choose to do any work at all.  Allegedly, the problem begins with admitting athletes who have not demonstrated the skills to handle the academic rigors of college coursework.  Then, with the approval of university administrators, an entire network is created whereby athletes are allowed to negotiate their way around the curriculum without having to exercise their minds.  Rich or poor, and regardless of whether they pick up a book or attend a class, they get full rides to attend the university and keep their scholarships, while sometimes even getting As for their non-efforts.  The “scholars” at issue must feel like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.   You get to play the game you love, you don’t have to go to classes, you don’t have to accumulate debt, and you can make all sorts of business contacts with the university’s well-heeled boosters.   What’s more, increasingly you can listen to talking heads wax eloquent about how you should actually be PAID to play college sports.   Oh, those poor exploited scholar-athletes.

This story wouldn’t bother me so much if I thought the problem was confined to the “Tar Heels” of North Carolina.   Unfortunately, I fear the nicotine stain that surrounds that school’s athletic program can be found, to different degrees, in most universities with big-time athletic departments.  The joke that is the modern American student-athlete will be most blatantly on display this weekend at this year’s Final Four.  There, you can see the University of Kentucky trot out its latest group of freshmen basketball players who entered the university with the understanding that they will literally be “one and done.”   That’s right – no sophomore slump for them.   After their freshman year, they will be off to the NBA, and another group of scholars/roundball players will take their place on the hardwood and NOT in the classrooms.

It was the immortal Captain Renault who proclaimed to be “Shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”  Well, I’m no Renault.  I wasn’t shocked to read about the University of North Carolina and its separate track for athletes.  But I am dismayed at how little the media seems to give a damn.  Don’t you get it?   Thanks to an articulate, courageous whistleblower, the voices of truth and justice now have the University of North Carolina right where they want it.    Those voices can make an example of the university, shut down its football and basketball programs for years, and fire any venal administrator who can be demonstrably tied to the scandal.  And then, when other whistleblowers arise at other universities, these schools’ athletic programs can be shut down as well and their deans can be sent packing.  Sounds good, right?

Sounds like utopia to me – which literally means, “no place.”  Here in the USA, college football and basketball programs are the geese that lay the golden eggs, and I don’t foresee any developments that will threaten to shut down that egg-laying.  The same universities that think nothing of taking gobs of money from students who already are deeply in debt will continue to roll out the red carpet for their jocks.  And the media moguls who control the way stories like this one are covered will continue to look the other way, while at the same time expecting their underlings to refer to the ballplayers as student-athletes or scholar-athletes.  In so many cases, they are neither.  They are simply frauds, just like the coaches, deans, and “sports-journalists” who enable them.

Sorry for the depressing post.  But hey, nobody ever promised a rose garden when it comes to talking about scandals.  In my next post, there will be no scandal-mongering.  I promise.