To Educate with Purpose

Persecution of Socrates

Two education stories I came across last week will tie together my last couple posts, and offer correctives to the problem of school and rudeness. The first story is a new approach to an old requirement in school. The second story is about empathy.

On Tuesday, NPR ran a story about math. Why do we learn advanced math? To think better, I guess. Logic. So we all have to learn math, up past algebra, in order to graduate from high school.

But the approach to numbers can be different. No one ever taught me this in school.

In America we use the accounting method, where 4 + 5 = 9. It always does, and we drill this until we get it. According to the Harvard professor on NPR, this approach was developed in Italy in the 1500s to teach the children of shopkeepers and merchants.

But there’s a more philosophical approach. What is 9, really? Well,  it could be 4 + 5. Or it could be 11-2. It could be an infinite combination of other things. Nineness is a quality, more than anything. Something to explore.

There’s also applied math. When measuring a table, 4 feet plus 5 inches certainty doesn’t equal 9. It’s got meaning, now. Nine is also a three-possession game in basketball: defend the three-point line and don’t foul. If you’re up by three with ten seconds left in the game, you might think about fouling, depending on your likelihood of securing a defensive rebound on a free throw vs. their likelihood of making a three-pointer.

We have this religious belief surrounding math, that, like many other aspects of school, are revealed as superstition (or worse) if you separate your thinking from the dogma (or kool-aid.)

Should we teach numbers and math to children? Yes. Should we provide and encourage advanced mathematics for those students so inclined? Yes.

Should we force feed a monolithic approach to math on everyone from kindergarten through high school? I think we would be just fine changing gears.


“In Denmark, they learn empathy the way they learn math.”

An article in the Philadelphia Citizen describes the educational system of the “happiest place on Earth.” They implement a rigorous social skills curriculum starting in kindergarten.

When do we, in America, learn about human emotions– how to recognize them in ourselves and others?  Or how best to respond to emotions? When do we learn how to communicate effectively with another person?

To graduate, we force our young people to derive square roots and solve algebraic expressions. The psychological skills–we assume–just happen. Or can’t be taught. Denmark knows better.

It turns out that social and emotional skills are not tangential to success, even academic success. Researchers are discovering that skills like communication and perseverance and “growth mindset” are as important as GPA and test scores in predicting academic performance in college.

A more human-centered curriculum would not only improve our relationships and communities, but would boost academic performance.

Sounds like a no-brainer to me.

A Little Generosity, Please? 

The other day I was driving my car on a side street in the early evening. It was dark. From the side street, I approached a major street and prepared to turn right. There was no intersection or crosswalk. Just a stop sign. Before I reached the sign, I noticed a biker crossing in front of me. I stopped. Perhaps quickly, but with plenty of space between us. As the biker passed by, he raised his hand– presumably to wave “thank you” for stopping.

As his hand reached up, a single middle finger rose in the air. The one-finger salute expressed his feelings about the situation.

The gesture bothered me for the rest of my drive. I didn’t even know this guy.

If we had discussed the matter, I might have said: “Hey man, sorry about that. Sorry if I scared you. Didn’t see you until the last minute.”

He might have said: “No problem. I am really glad you saw me and stopped. After all, I was riding my bike down a major city street without a light or a helmet.”

But no conversation would take place. Only an expression of displeasure that served its purpose of making me angry.

This exchange is symbolic, I think, of the ways we relate to each other these days. And it’s not just trolls on the internet.

Or, maybe we’ve all become trolls on the internet. Memes and knee jerk reactions become our one-finger salutes. Angry gestures from passersby.

Rage gets sparked by things like a Gorilla at a zoo, shot to protect a child who ventured into a cage. Who do we blame?

Outrage as entertainment. Conviction by social media.

Looking through this lens, many examples come to mind. The riots in Milwaukee. Conservative anger about Black Lives anger. Local news. Anything having to do with the presidential election.

And I’m equally at fault, swept up into the rage of the political season. Quick to condemn and point fingers and yell and scream and insult.

But this reaction just lowers the bar. Of a bar lowered, pretty low, already.

Reading, Writing, Revolution

walking-on-waterOne of the books I tragically forgot to mention in my reading list post was Walking On Water: Reading, Writing, Revolution. The book struck me profoundly when I first read it a few years ago, and struck me again the second time around this summer. It’s worth a quick reflection as I begin a new year in the classroom.

Derrick Jensen is a writing instructor who teaches at community colleges and prisons. He structures the book to mirror the progression of his course week to week. Each chapter is a different week is a different theme. He is teaching writing but he is really teaching life. How to think. Why to think. How to question: What does it all mean?

Jensen hates authority, or at least the kind of authority that imposes on your freedom for no good reason. (He doesn’t mention any good reasons.) He hates the kind of power that demands compliance for the sake of compliance. Worse, he thinks the forces of modern society are turning human spirits into industrial cogs.

And how does society succeed at crushing the human spirit, molding it into a compliant robot that punches clocks and pays taxes?


Jensen also hates what school represents. Sit down, shut up. Listen. Write this down. Answer these questions. No, that answer is wrong. Please follow directions.

To Jensen, the human being is born free and curious. Left to his own exploration, a child will want to know more, want to explore and learn.

Only when shoved into a four-walled enclosure and given orders do children learn to hate learning.

This view is, of course, extreme. Certainly there is room in society for rules and discipline. To learn, there must be some structure, some order, some guidance. But it makes me wonder. What is the end-game for our education? What is the goal?

It feels like we take certain things for granted. Things like “college” and “GPA.” More often it seems we proceed by tradition and social benchmarks, rather than what’s truly good for humanity.

In my own experience, I benefited from a handful of courses in college. A few psychology professors greatly influenced me with their teaching style and expertise. But my college degree seemed more of a social stamp of approval, rather than an actual training ground for the real world.

Only after my career as a student ended did I become serious about the pursuit of knowledge. When I started teaching psychology, I started studying it deeply for the first time. This pursuit opened new curiosities, new pursuits. I discovered a desire to learn more about history and religion and economics and politics.

The value of these pursuits struck me only when the obligation to study them was over. My interest in reading and writing coincided with a personal crisis: a revolution of the heart.

I’m continually grateful for people like Derrick Jensen who see beyond and challenge the status quo. Amid the rat race, he strives for originality and authenticity. In doing so, he grants others permission to do the same.

Time for Real Talk in Politics

we the peopleTrump supporters speak glowingly of their  candidate, who “tells it like it is.” He speaks his mind. People are frustrated with politispeak. The same plain-speaking qualities were attributed to Bernie Sanders, who called out Clinton for her cronyism, even though he didn’t want to talk about her “damn emails.”

As Republican leaders hem and haw over lukewarm positions on Trump, they demonstrate this frustration. As Clinton hems and haws about her emails, she demonstrates this frustration.

Some of the most firm GOP resistance to Trump fails to deliver real talk. Ohio governor John Kasich, one of the last Republican presidential candidates standing, has failed to flat out reject Trump. He admitted, in a recent interview with CNN, that voters in his state are frustrated and may vote for Trump. But instead of being real with these voters, telling them that, despite their frustrations, Trump should not be president– he hems and haws.

Instead of trying to redirect the support for Trump, GOP leaders are trying to wait it out. Hopefully it blows over, and we can get back to business.

If you remember, they tried the appeasement strategy in the primaries.

How about being a leader? Your party has been taken over by a radical outsider. He has duped everyone. Try to get it back. “Don’t vote for Trump. Here’s what we can do.”

If you remember, most Republicans voted for someone else in the primaries.

In a press conference last week, Arizona Senator John McCain (R), who is up for re-election, was asked what he thought about Trump possibly controlling the nuclear arsenal. His response was that, well, voters get to decide who’s president, and whoever the people of America want, that’s what will happen.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake (R), who is not up for re-election, remains in the Kasich camp. Not endorsing Trump. Still undecided. Not sure. Waiting to see if Trump will change.

News Flash:

  1. Trump launched his campaign over a year ago calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers.
  2. Also a year ago, Trump ridiculed McCain for getting captured in Vietnam.
  3. Trump has advocated for torture, and for killing the families of terrorists.
  4. He wants to start a trade war with China and bully Mexico into paying for a border wall.
  5. He has advocated deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants.
  6. He has advocated banning an entire religion from entering the country.
  7. He has encouraged foreign countries to commit espionage on the U.S.
  8. He has advocated for nuclear proliferation, so countries can “take care of themselves.”
  9. He praises Russian dictator Putin for his strong leadership, while mocking American leaders and calling our military pathetic.
  10. He attacked a federal judge and disparaged his Mexican heritage, because of an unfavorable ruling.
  11. He attacked a grieving mother and insulted her Muslim heritage, because her husband questioned Trump’s fitness for office and asked if he had ever read the Constitution.
  12. Trump has shown shocking ignorance of the Constitution and of the very basic knowledge of world events or government functions. He thought that judges signed bills. He didn’t know what the nuclear triad was. He didn’t know that Russia annexed Crimea. He didn’t know that Scotland wanted to remain in the European Union, even though he flew across the country, on the day after the Brexit vote, to give a speech in Scotland. A month before the historic vote, he did not even know what “Brexit” meant.
  13. He is already claiming the election to be rigged, and will undoubtedly try to bring the ship of American down with him if he loses.

His daily behavior and words would earn him time-out in any first grade class in America. He is a well-documented pathological liar. He snaps at personal criticism, no matter how slight. He is a walking caricature.

Let’s be real.

Some Trump supporters can’t be swayed. As Trump has said, he could stand on a street corner in New York and shoot someone and still not lose support.

And so what– we’re going to pander to these people? We’re willing to hand over the keys to the Oval Office to this freakshow, hoping he lowers taxes?

Let’s be real.

Others will vote for Trump as a vote against Clinton, because people they respect are making this permissible.

Well, as Republican Senator Lindsay Graham put it, “there’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”

That time is now. The polls are tipping strongly in favor of Clinton, and more Republicans are staking their protest, predicting the fall. History will remember who stood on the sidelines.


If they truly can’t stomach Clinton, Republicans can save face and support Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who served as a two-term Republican Governor in New Mexico. His running mate Bill Weld is a former two-term Republican Governor of Massachusetts.

So you want lower taxes and a smaller government? There you go. You want someone who would appoint a disciplined jurist to the Supreme Court? There you go. You want someone who would repeal Obamacare? There you go.

Yes, you have to compromise on social issues, if you lean that way. Johnson supports legalizing marijuana, he is pro-choice, and he supports gay marriage. Weighing this compromise against an unpredictable buffoon  who doesn’t care about social issues anyways, I think that’s reasonable.

Gary Johnson is looking to get into the presidential debates. He will be on the ballot in all 50 states. He has already received one endorsement from a Republican congressman.

The most refreshing thing about Gary Johnson is that he is real. He tells it like it is. He speaks his mind, and what comes out is actually humane.

On a CNN town hall last week, host Anderson Cooper was taken aback when Johnson gave the following response to a Bernie Sanders supporter:

“That crony capitalism is alive and well, but from an economic standpoint here’s my hypothesis, and I might be wrong: If Bernie supporters are really looking for income equality, I don’t think that is something that government can accomplish.”

He didn’t pander. He went on to speak to what the government actually could accomplish: equal opportunity.

Cooper asked him about his humility, saying it’s rare to hear a politician say “maybe I’m wrong but this is what I think.”

Johnson responded:

“Well if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. That has been a creed of mine forever. In that vein, if you tell the truth, that means you’ll admit mistakes and make plenty of mistakes. But how often is a mistake worse just because of the denial of the mistake and there’s no quicker way to get after fixing something than first acknowledging it.”

How refreshing. How appropriate to this conversation.


We are not electing the King of the World, but president of a country founded on balance of powers, individual freedom, and equality under the law.

We fought a revolution to live under these principles. Since our founding we have debated, fought, and sacrificed to define and preserve these principles.

There is a woman running for president who may be corrupt and deceptive. There is a man running for president who defiles everything we stand for as a country.

It’s time for our leaders to defend our national identity, not play evasion games.

Summer Reading List 2016

book-it-heroFull disclosure: I did not read all of these books cover-to-cover this summer. Some of them I did. Others, healthy chunks. Of late, my reading of books happens in bits and spurts, interrupted by online articles and social media. Back in my flip-phone days, even during the school year as a teacher, I would be reading a few books at a time, usually finishing a book every couple weeks.

So it goes. My goal is to reclaim the habit. Here are the books I read enough to comment on:

Breaks of the Game: A fascinating read by award-winning sports journalist David Halberstam. It describes the season of the 1979-80 Portland Trailblazers, also narrating the radical changes happening in the NBA during that time. TV contracts and salaries were expanding, race relations were tense, drug use was rampant, and egos through the roof. And head coach Dr. Jack Ramsay, doing it for the love of the game, was struggling to keep his soul in a jaded league.

Awareness: A re-read, but always moving and relevant. I love the subtitle: “the perils and opportunities of reality.” It’s a spiritual book by psychologist and Jesuit priest Anthony deMello. A mystic urging us toward Awareness. Any further description by me will blaspheme a book I revere.

Tattoos on the Heart: Another re-read, this time on audio-tape by the author, Jesuit priest Greg Boyle. His tenderness working with gang members in Los Angeles speaks to the core of our humanity. And to the multitude of social problems which persist. An especially good read in the tumultuous summer of ’16.

Make Something Up: A collection of short stories. I wanted to escape the real world for a while, and Chuck Palahniuk is one of my favorites for that. The author of Fight Club never disappoints, even when he crosses all boundaries of human decency. Other great novels for those over 18 are Choke and Survivor.

Why Faith?: A book written by a good friend, former colleague and roommate Matt Emerson. I lived with Matt for two years, and witnessed firsthand his pursuit of truth. He reflects deeply and takes his faith seriously. The book combines intellectual integrity and the question of God, appropriate for anyone interested in religiosity.

The Rational Optimist: Another refreshing read for a dreary summer of news. A gift from my father, the book argues that the flourishing of our species happened not because of language or frontal lobes, but a penchant for free-trade. Exchanging goods and services has enabled the rapid advancement human beings, in our material well-being and protection from danger. We are better off now than ever before, and can expect to be even better off in the future, barring some unforeseen catastrophe.

A Brief History of PhoenixMy first read in an attempt to know Phoenix better. The author Jon Talton, a former journalist in Phoenix, so far provides an interesting take on the origin and development of the sixth largest city in America. In the Wild West a metropolis sprouts in the desert, supported from the get-go by the federal government.

Thinking Fast and Slow:  A best-selling psychology book by Daniel Kahneman. More of a cognitive approach made usable for the common folk. Basically, we have two systems of thought– intuitive and effortful. These systems activate at different times for different reasons. It’s wise to distinguish between the two and be aware of how they operate. They often reach different conclusions.

Still on the Wish List:

Looking for Alaska: John Green has a bunch of YouTube videos about history. They are excellent. I respect his analysis and he makes history fun. This novel is a coming of age story set in a high school. I’ve read good reviews.


That’s the list for the summer. A few of these I still need to finish, but when I do I will be looking for the next read. Feel free to add recommendations in the comments section.

Long Live Books!