Sunday, September 24, 2017

Matt Lewis takes a stand ... on nothing


Conservative blogger and critic Matt Lewis has made a name for himself in recent years with thoughtful pragmatic commentary on pertinent issues, and he's not afraid to challenge Republicans or concede to Democrats. Overall, his work for the Daily Beast, his regular tweets, and his appearance on talk television have been meaningful up to this point - but today he decided to weigh in on the NFL controversies, and he has brought nothing to the table. What makes it worse is that he has decided to tweet and comment on his ardent and firm stance .... on basically nothing.

Specifically, Lewis floated a column on the Daily Beast where he comes clean and makes a big deal about his decision that: It's Official: This is the Year I Stop Watching Football. Readers may think that as a conservative and reasonably reliable Republican that Lewis is upset over the protests by football players, such as Colin Kaepernick, who are "taking a knee" during the national anthem to protest racial inequity, especially in the area of policing. But that'd probably be wrong. Other readers may think that he is taking the moral position regarding the violent nature of the game, which leads to traumatic brain injuries and the prevalence of CTE in current and former NFL players. Some people feel they just can't condone the danger and risk, so they've quit watching. This position was well-articulated by writer Steve Almond who published Against Football: a Reluctant Fan's Manifesto back in 2015. And Lewis acknowledges that ethical discomfort as a reason to stop watching the NFL - but readers can't assume it's his.

In fact, Matt Lewis spends an entire article explaining all the reasons someone might boycott or simply stop watching the NFL, but never explains what he believes. He points out that there could be legitimate health reasons that he, and maybe we, should stop watching the NFL. Heart attacks go up among fans when their team loses. But Lewis doesn't concede to a concern about his own cardiac situation. Then, to make it all the more vacuous, Lewis explains that he will stop watching the NFL today .... but that he probably won't maintain this conviction. If a game is on at a friend's house and he's there, he will probably watch. If his team - The Redskins ("with the politically incorrect name") - go on a run to the playoffs, he will watch. And, of course, he will probably watch the Super Bowl. So, he composed an entire column and tweeted several times about it just to concede that he might not watch NFL games on September 24, and that is, for some reason, a really big deal.

After Lewis published his article, and then tweeted about how he's "not watching football" today, it became apparent that he wanted everyone to know about his big decision to take a stance against absolutely nothing. Lewis' work in last year's Too Dumb to Fail was some of the best political writing of the past few years. He should probably stick to topics where he actually stands for something.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

America Ninja Warrior Letdown - Joe Moravsky got robbed (by Pom Wonderful & NBC)

Why do we keep watching? Why do they keep competing? Why won't NBC, Pom Wonderful, and Ninja Warrior do right by these extraordinary athletes? Why are multi-billion dollar companies and brands such tightasses with their earnings? Why am I so annoyed by this?

Once again, for the eighth time out of nine years, the iconic and thrilling endurance competition American Ninja Warrior has ended without a champion, without a victor, without a climb of Mt. Midoryama, without an award of a million dollars, without a satisfying and appropriate conclusion to a season's worth of glorious physical achievements. It all ended in a surprising, anti-climactic, disappointing splash, followed by a dis-spirited shrug from the hosts and a "see ya next year" sign-off from the network. On Monday night, three finalists made it to the coveted Stage III of the American Ninja Warrior course, and long-time competitor Joe "The Weatherman" Moravsky went the fathest on a truly grueling and (obviously) impossible course, only to fall just a few feet and a couple more obstacles from the end.

That last string of challenges on Stage III bordered on the absurd, specifically because it contained one more challenge than it should have with literally no chance for the competitor to even take a breather. And, let's face it, since the course had no winner last year, it really wasn't necessary to change the final challenges, unless the corporate shills wanted to guarantee that they wouldn't have to write a check. You know, Pom (not so) Wonderful and NBC, the producers of the Amazing Race and Survivor give away a million dollar prize every ... damn ... year. It is so satisfying to watch the winner celebrate. That makes those shows a superior production, and they have a lot more integrity.

Let's be clear: POM and NBC are making copious amounts of cash off these athletes who are basically performing for free. They are donating their talents and pushing themselves for the simple pursuit of excellence. It's not about the money, it's not about the fame, it's all about the challenge. And, the producers should honor them for that. POM and NBC are worse than the NCAA in their manipulation and abuse of their athletes. These top tier athletes and stars should be compensated for their efforts. Joe and Drew and Lance and Jessie and so many more are top draws for the network. While someone like Joe may not "deserve" or even want the million dollars for coming up short, the network should cut checks to the finalists to make it financially worth the while. Since Joe went the farthest this year, since he was the last ninja standing (or dry), he should earn some sort of reward. I don't think a $100K is an unreasonable expectation.

Come on NBC. Come on POM. Adapt. Grow. Change. Progress. Be excellent to these athletes who pursue excellence. Leave the course the same until it's conquered, and compensate those athletes who are making you even richer.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

Some Ways Lenora Chu is Wrong


Anytime someone bases a criticism of the American public education system on a comparison to the supposed "superiority" of Asian students based on their standardized test scores from the PISA test, I am immediately suspicious, and I have to force myself to listen in an objective way. The latest entry in this discussion comes from journalist and writer Lenora Chu, who has recently published a memoir and education commentary called Little Soldiers: an American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve. The problems of such international comparisons are well-documented, and I don't intend to recount that issue here, other than to note a few things: when corrected for poverty, American schools actually rank number one in the world; the state of Massachusetts regularly outperforms the rest of the world including places like Shanghai; American students have won the International Math Olympiad for two of the past three years; the Chinese don't educate huge numbers of their kids (so the scores aren't really nationally representative); and the performance on standardized tests have not translated to superiority in the real world of innovation and professional achievement. In the past thirty-fifty years, have Shanghai doctors, engineers, scientists (physicists/chemists/biologists), computer programmers, economists, technicians, etc. outperformed their counterparts in America? Uh ... no.

No, I am actually much more interested in exploring how Chu's story and claims are actually a reflection of poor parenting skills and a social dynamic that is not really fixable in contemporary American society. I have not read Chu's book yet, though I will; and I am basing my criticisms on her recent piece of commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Why American Students Need Chinese Schools. It is certainly written as a promotional piece for her book, but I was more intrigued by the underlying issue which is basically an unintentional confessional piece about Chu's lack of faith in her own ability to parent and her desire for schools to raise her children for her. Chu opens her WSJ piece with a disturbing anecdote about Chinese teachers force-feeding egg to her kindergartener, and her apparent acquiesence to this absurd action because "the teacher knows best." Why she - not to mention the entire Chinese school system - believes that people have to eat eggs or that it is a necessary protein is beyond my comprehension. In reality, it's not about eggs at all - it's about absolute and indisputable compliance, complacency, and subserviance to authority.

Granted, Chu is correct in her assertion that "Western teachers spend lots of time managing student behavior and crushing mini-revolts by students and parents alike," and it can be subsequently argued that part of America's education problem is the result of poorly-raised children with negative attitudes toward school, teachers, and learning. That said, America has never been a society of somewhat mindless automatons who are afraid to challenge their government, and I'd argue we don't want it to be. I'd go one step further and argue that students thinking for themselves, having preferences and choices, and not blindly obeying a teacher just because of a degree and certificate are contributors to America's century-long dominance in innovation and social progress, and they are not necessarily correlated to poor educational performance and bad behavior. There is a reason that so many international students - especially from countries like China - come to the United States for college, graduate school, and jobs. It is the freedom from being "force-fed eggs" (and propoganda from an internet-restricted media) that allows people to thrive and grow.

Note: I lived and taught in Taiwan - the Republic of China - for five years. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Updike's "Rabbit" Angstrom is Back - and his name is Rich

The mildly depressing ennui of the middle class suburban man is as dependable as the June swoon for most major league ball clubs, and it's a time honored tradition of American literature and popular culture that seems to never become as boring and uninteresting as the un-loveable losers it portrays. What is it about American guys? Is the species really that lost and pathetic? Probably.

From that mythical and sappy time of the 1950s "Happy Days," when literary lion John Updike first shared the story of the "Rabbit" who desperately wanted to run, the dark pathetic side of Ward Cleaver has been a stock character of American fiction. Rabbit, Run was more than just the story of Harry Angstrom's disillusioned and disaffected minor rebellion - it was a chronicle of a decade with all the mundane details that no one talked about at parties.

I enjoyed Updike's Rabbit novels for all the sociological voyeurism they provided, and I've been pondering them and recognizing them as I make my way through Mathew Klam's 2017 novel Who is Rich?  Klam has a sharp eye for social satire as he relates the story of Rich Fischer, a forty-something old illustrator and once-mildly-successful cartoonist who ekes out a life of quiet desperation working for magazines and freelance gigs like court room artist. His only escape from the monotony is a visit to a summer writing clinic filled with similar misfits.

While the story is one told before, Klam's skill with description and storytelling hearkens back to Updike in language as much as plot. As the New Times opined:

There’s no doubt that “Who Is Rich?” is difficult to read, and that’s by design. It’s an experience akin to listening to a semi-charming casual acquaintance reveal way too much information about his relationship woes — it’s horrifying, but you find yourself unable to turn away. It’s a challenging novel, but Klam’s prose is so clean, so self-assured, that it feels a little like a miracle. Klam forces his readers to think about things many of us would rather ignore, and somehow makes us feel a reluctant sympathy toward a man who hasn’t earned it. Maybe it’s a love story; maybe it’s just a lust story, but either way, it’s a fine accomplishment. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Students: Be Extraordinary, Indispensable, & Good

This week I was asked to give a speech at the induction ceremony for my high school's newest National Honor Society members. It was a nice honor, and I was happy to share some thoughts with the kids and their families. Here is the text from my speech:

Our youth today love luxury.  They have bad manners and contempt for authority.  They disrespect their elders and love gossip and socializing instead of exercise.  They no longer rise when adults enter the room.  They challenge their parents, gobble up their food, and tyrannize their teachers.

While you might think those comments were part of a recent NBC news special or an article in the New York Times, or perhaps posted by your parents' friends on Facebook, they were actually delivered by Socrates in the Fifth Century, B.C.  We hear a lot of criticism of young people these days, and of public education.  Some would argue that both are in a state of ruin.  I would argue, however, that people who feel that way don’t know anything about Cherry Creek High School.

I want to thank Ms. Benham for the opportunity to speak tonight – and I want to thank the students here for giving me a reason to sing your praises.  Despite the negative talk about education – and the country in general these days – you are the people we don’t really worry about.  In fact, on the contrary, we look to you, filled with pride and hope.  You truly are the best and brightest, and the future belongs to you.  The question is what are you going to do with it?  The twenty-first century is a time that is constantly in flux – undergoing perpetual change – and the technologies and professions that will be in demand may not have even been invented yet.  Thus, your future truly is wide open.  The challenge is to find your path.

Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society urged students to “Make your lives extraordinary.”  And I think you are doing that.  You are extra ordinary – you stand out.  Beyond that I would tell you to make yourselves useful through self improvement and service. In fact, I will go one step further, and borrow the advice of a good friend of mine. He credits his success to always being the one who says yes, always being the one who says, "I'll try," always being the one who says, "I can do that." So beyond beyond being skilled and helpful, “make yourself indispensable.”  In an episode of the HBO show Girls, one of the characters is fired from her unpaid internship.  And then she finds out her replacement is actually being paid for the job.  She adamantly asks her boss how this can true, and he says, “Well, she knows PhotoShop.”  When she responds, “I can learn PhotoShop,” he tells her, “Maybe, but you didn’t.”  My point is you are the kind of people who learn PhotoShop.  You are the ones who work hard and do what needs to be done.  That is uncommon in these times, and it will serve you well.

Steve Martin is one of the most prominent entertainers and pop culture figures of our time.  From his early days as a stand-up comedian and original cast member of SNL, he has become a film icon as an actor, director, writer, and producer.  He has written numerous best-selling books and an award winning play.  He is considered one premier art collectors and critics in American society.  And he is a renowned musician whose prowess with the banjo rivals the best in the business.  Steve Martin is just so … good.  So, when Steve Martin was asked for the secret to success, he responded, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”  Be … so … good … they … can’t … ignore … you.  That’s the kind of advice you can do something with.  Dedicate yourselves to your craft – whatever it is, and commit to excellence. 

Regardless of which path you choose, do whatever you do with commitment and determination to succeed.  I mean, you’re honors students at Cherry Creek High School.  You are going to get into a good college.  It will be the right college for you.  When you get there, you’re going to do well, and unlike far too many kids, you’re going to earn a degree that will qualify you for a good job.  And you will be well prepared for your job, and you will be well prepared for life. You will be valued, and you will be indispensable. You will be so good they can't ignore you.

You have worked very hard to get here  tonight, and we celebrate your membership in a highly respected institution and a tradition. As a baseline, you must have achieved highly in the academic field. But NHS is about more than just grades - it's about character and service. Over the years I have appreciated the tutoring and academic support that NHS members provide to our student body. And, believe me, when I am in Beyond the Bell after school, and some kid is asking for help in Pre-Calc, this English teacher is looking around for you. Your service matters a great deal, and it's easy to dismiss it as "no big deal," as so many of you say to me. But for a kid who's struggling, the time you give can mean the world. 

If you continue to develop your skills and put in the time and cultivate your character, you will make a difference in the world, and you will, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "meet with a success unexpected in common hours." Congratulations on your nomination and acceptance to the National Honor Society.

*Note:  I joked that night that I am somewhat plagiarizing myself because the speech was pulled together from a variety of essays, articles, and speeches I've given in the past.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Problem with Youth Sports

Quote: "I've seen parents spend $100K pursuing athletic scholarships. They could have just set it aside for the damn college."

I've been saying that - hell, even ranting about that - for years, and it makes little difference in the knock-down-drag-out crazy world of competitive youth sports. The most recent spotlight comes in this week's Time Magazine (Time.com) which features the expose on "How Kids Sports Became a $15 billion industry." Writer Sean Gregory takes a detailed look inside the youth sports industry and shines a spotlight on the absurdity of it all. This dark side of the industry is nothing new, and it's been building momentum like a freight train since the dawn of club sports - notably soccer - in the early 1980s. The essence of youth sports, of games, has always been believed to be about fun and the joy/thrill of competition. And for many kids it may still be that way. But it's hard to find the basic pursuit of fun in youth athletics anymore. Nearly every conversation turns to the cost of competition.
Years ago I read a fascinating exploration of the issue - Fred Engh's Why Johnny Hates Sports: Why Organized Youth Sports are Failing Our Children. Published in 2002, I'd imagine Engh's data and anecdotes are somewhat dated - but his argument and claims are probably as timely and relevant as ever. The competition with a long-term career and investment focus, rather than the pursuit of fun and activity, has led to a pressure-filled and increasingly joyless sense about sports. Certainly, all parents and kids enter the youth sports world for some fun and camraderie and competition. At a certain point, however, it becomes a business for far too many.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Some Late August Thoughts

I live a two-minute walk from school, and there are few nostalgic moments I enjoy more than hearing the return of the sounds of our marching band's drum line wafting through the neighborhood. The rythm truly energizes me, letting me know the summer days are fading and the kids will be back on campus soon.

The solar eclipse of 2017 has now come and gone, and we here in Denver experienced nearly 93% coverage. While that sounds pretty intense, I have to say that in all honesty I found the whole experience a bit underwhelming. That said, I know quite a few people who spent the day in the path of totality, and the unanimous word is that the experience is quite special.

Sanity has returned to Dove Valley, as the Denver Broncos have finally ended the charade and named Trevor Simian as starting quarterback. Thank goodness. While Simian is the textbook example of a journeyman quarterback, the hard and obvious reality is that first-round draft pick Paxton Lynch is simply not ready for the NFL ... and may never be. So, even though John Elway should have lots of 'splaining to do (but won't have to because he's John, and this is Denver), the team and town can get down to the business of winning championships with D-Fense.

I still think that "Feel It Still" by Portugal, the Man is the song of the summer, and it should probably be the Song of the Year.

The Netflix series Ozark starring Jason Bateman is an incredible bit of television, and its debut season was worth all the hype. In fact, I believe it's a better show than Breaking Bad.

I must admit that I am late to the hype of the McGregor-Mayweather fight, but I am certainly intrigued, and I sort of wish I knew someone willing to fork out the $99 for pay-per-view. Though I am not a big MMA fan, I was stunned by the video of McGregor's title-winning bout.

Still don't think college athletes should be paid - but I am intrigued by the most recent discussion of the issue from the WSJ's Jason Gay.

Every teacher should read some books by Cris Tovani about literacy, and every school should entertain the idea of PLCs and the work of Rick Dufour.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Healthy Living would "Make America Great"

OK, let's be clear about one thing:  countless national problems could be alleviated, or even solved, if most people simply felt better. And more people would feel better if more people were living healthier. America is certainly no model for healthy living, though the self-help industry seems to indicate that many Americans want to live healthy. Yet, according to TheAtlantic.com, a new study from the Mayo Clinic indicates (or exposes) that "Less than 3 Percent of Americans Live a Healthy Lifestyle."

The study authors defined a “healthy lifestyle” as one that met four qualifications:
  • Moderate or vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes a week
  • A diet score in the top 40 percent on the Healthy Eating Index
  • A body fat percentage under 20 percent (for men) or 30 percent (for women)
  • Not smoking

There is much to unpack in a study and an article with such claims.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Not every child is "uniquely brilliant"

OK, granted it was an advertisement and slogan designed to sell a product, but every time I hear it I recoil at the absolute absurdity of the claims made by K12, an alleged "tuition-free online public school," which is actually a for-profit education and curriculum company.

The claim made in the commercial by some teacher named "Bryan" is that "at K12 we believe every child is uniquely brilliant." That is selling point meant to appeal to parents/families of kids who are not served by the traditional institutions of public education. Outside of the standard bad press exposing mediocre to poor results at such online learning programs, I am bugged by the implication that qualities of brilliance and giftedness actually common and present in everyone. That is simply not true in any objective reality or rational discussion. Too often and for nefarious reasons, the ideas of giftedness are diluted by people misuing an equity lens to promote education profiteering. In reality, Bryan is not much of an educator and certainly not a credible education advocate if he truly believes that everyone is brilliant. That perspective defies the very nature of the idea of brilliance. Not everyone is gifted. In fact, not everyone even has a gift. The concept of average is a very real thing, and anyone in education touting the idea of unique "giftedness" in every child clearly has no knowledge of or experience with "gifted" people. That borders on educational malpratice, and it's a disservice to the institution, especially if we want all students to reach their potential. Potential is something that all children have. Giftedness is not.

There are many exceptional athletes and even more extremely hardworking athletes who achieve success. However, historical figures like Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt or Lebron James are in many ways "freaks of nature." They are exceptions to the norm, and they have gifts which exceed even the hardest working athlete. The same can be said for numerous gifts in math or science or the arts or creativity or dexterity or countless other areas. Giftedness, or "GT" in my world, is a legally defined "exceptionality." Being brilliant, to use Bryan's term, is not common. It is unusual and unique and rare. Cam Newton is a "GT" football player. Yo-Yo Ma is a "GT" cello player. Lil Buck is a "GT" dancer. Barack Obama is a "GT" orator. Jonathan Franzen is a "GT" writer. Adele is a "GT" singer. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake are "GT" entertainers.

They are "uniquely brilliant."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Prost Bavarian Beer House & Summer in Summit County

Each summer as the days begin to heat up, and the encroaching school supply sales begin to hint at the end of summer, we head to Summit County, CO, for a week or so of mountain living. The respite from the heat (it's a pleasant 78-82 degrees here when it's mid-90s on the Front Range) is only one part of the sheer joy of life at 9,000 feet. It's a day after day of outdoor living with a healthy and steady regimen of hiking, biking, swiming, fishing, reading, relaxing, eating and drinking. Our preferred home base is the lovely Keystone Lodge & Resort, nestled along the Snake River in the Keystone Valley, and we have our regular bike rides and hikes as well as favorite locales. But each summer there is something new to discover, and this year has given us a true Bavarian treat in a Frisco ale house called Prost Fine Beers and Sausages. We visited last night for some local music, sausages, pretzels and beverages.

Our "discovery" of Prost was a bit fortuitous, for it began in our desire to hear some great local music, most notably that of Summit County favorite Beau Thomas. Thomas is a singer and guitarist who appeared on "The Voice," and we have enjoyed his shows at Bighorn Lodge in the Resort over the past few years. Just a man with a great voice, an engaging personality, a guitar, and a broad repertoire, Beau has played the Happy Hour at the Bighorn for a few years, and it had been a tradition to see him at least once when we visited. He can sing practically anything and takes requests, but he also puts a great bluesy-folksy spin on it that is distinctly his style. Beau also hosts the Open Mic every Tuesday at Prost, and we made the trip over to Frisco for some great food and music. Prost is a pretty quaint place with beer house tables and a patio, and we had noticed it over the years, but probably wouldn't have checked it out without the draw of Beau and the open mic. Beau serves as the host for the evening, and he was joined by a local drummer and bass player for an eclectic opening set that included a cover of Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready and a funky-cool mashup of Dr.Dre(No Diggety)/EdSheeran(Shape of You)/Mackelmore&RyanLewis(Thrift Shop). Beau Thomas & Co was a real treat, and we also enjoyed a couple other talented local singers.

The beer and food did not disappoint. My wife is not really a beer drinker, but she loved the refreshingly light pilsner-style lager called Stiegel, and I enjoyed a dark, malty Hofbrau Dunkel. The pretzels are a big hit as well, and we tried four sausages on their sampler platter - traditional veal, a beer brat, the elk-jalapeno cheddar, and a boar sausage with apricot and cranberry. All in all a great evening and definitely worth stopping by if you're in Summit County. Don't miss out on great beer and German food, and by all means make it a point to see Beau Thomas.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Teaching and My Identity

So, a former student is interested in education as a career, though not necessarily teaching. He's thinking about education policy and the economics of education. He could certainly teach and be excellent, though I'd see him more at the collegiate than the high school level. Anyway, as he ponders his future and decisions in college and post-graduate life, he sent me an email and asked if I'd consider answering a few questions about my decision to pursue teaching. It was actually a fun reflective moment for me, and I thought I'd share my feelings.

Why do you teach? 
a.     I love knowledge and learning and, of course, sharing this info with “a captive audience.” There is definitely a social justice component to what I do – I have an inherent need to “educate,” and my goal for my class is always to (in the words of Henry James) create “people on whom nothing is lost.” Teaching is simply something I can do well, and that’s significant because not everyone can engage the teenage mind with information and skills they aren’t instinctively interested in. I’ve always been able to write well, and as I learned to hone my craft, I developed a real passion for teaching people how to write – to do that well, they must also be able to read and think. And I have the ability to help kids develop those skills.

2.     When and why did you decide to go into education?
a.     Like many teachers, I had several who inspired me in class, and I quickly decided I wanted to do what they do. From the time I was a junior in high school, I wanted to teach, though I did begin as history/social studies major, and I always assumed I would get a Ph.D. and eventually become a professor. Even as an English teacher now, I still have it in the back of my mind that I will someday publish literary criticism and teach at the university level. While teaching in Taiwan, I became quite skilled at grammar and composition, and those areas have remained one of my areas of expertise. I am more of a Rhetoric and Composition guy than I am a Lit person. I also always swore I would never go into administration, yet here I am, and I love that role, too. I was pretty much goaded into that by my old department coordinator, as well as a few other administrators, and I can’t thank them enough for opening that world to me. Being able to still teach, but also do administrative work and coordinate groups like my school's Youth Advisory Board and events like Ethnic Fest makes me feel like I am making even more of a positive impact.

3.     What did you want to do before becoming a teacher?
a.     Writer – I always thought, quite sincerely, that I would teach until I finished the “Great American Novel,” which I would then turn into an Oscar-nominated screenplay. After three worthless and failed novels and screenplays, I’ve now concluded that I am actually a skilled non-fiction writer, which is why I blog and I write articles for the Denver Post and others. At one time I thought I wanted to go into politics and run for office, and I was quite involved in that at various times. While I am still politically active, I know I am more effective as a consultant and writer than I am at actually legislating, or worse campaigning.

4.     What would you do if you didn't go into education?
a.     I would be David Brooks of the New York Times.

b.     After I retire, I’m seriously considering moving to the Caribbean and opening a bed and breakfast with my wife. I would still publish and hopefully be able to do public speaking on occasion.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Practice a little "Intellectual Humility"

How do you "know" what you know?

One of my more entertaining bits that I like to do in my AP Lang & Comp class is to pose to my students this simple question: How do you know France really exists? How do you know France is a real place and the French language and culture are real things? It seems so silly, but I ask them to consider why they accept at face value something which has been asserted by people they don't even know. And then consider how you might set about "proving" it to yourself. You may go online and buy a ticket to "France," but you buy it from a website operated by people you don't know. You go to the airport and wait at a door that says "France" is the destination. You are directed by people you don't know down a windowless hallway, and then you find a seat in a long tubular room which you trust is an "airplane" - a 400-ton piece of machinery that you believe can "fly" at up to 600 miles per hour. Eventually the room starts rumbling and shaking, and you supposedly fly to France. When you land in this place you've never been, you encounter a bunch of people you don't know, who are speaking a language that you have been led to believe is "French."

But how do you really know?

I thought of this ridiculous exercise when I was at the TEDxMileHigh conference this weekend, and I listened to an "idea worth sharing" from Phil Fernbach, a cognitive scientist at CU-Boulder. Dr. Fernbach is the author of a book called The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Fernbach's presentation was about that importance of collaboration, and even compromise, in our pursuit of knowledge and understanding. He began his engaging lecture by recounting last year's amusing, though rather disheartening, tweet from the rapper B.o.B in which the singer asserted his belief that "the earth is flat." The tweet caught the attention of eminent scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and they began a sort of debate. This little exchange fascinated the internet for about a week, and the educated world looked on with amusement.

Fernbach used this story and some similar anecdotal material to point out how we like to look with contempt, disdain, and ridicule at stories like these that we find, well, absurd for good reason. But then he pressed us to ask ourselves just how well we truly understand and "know" the physics and the science of a round Earth to conclude that what we believe is correct. With the round earth issue, it seems easy and obvious, but with other issues the idea of factual understanding and irrefutable truth becomes a bit more nebulous. In reality, on a personal level we don't really know very much at all ... especially in the Google era when we can always just "look it up," right? And that dependence on others for our understanding was a valuable bit of insight. Our understanding and knowledge of so much depends on collaboration with others. There is very little we can and actually do know on our own.

So, as Fernbach progressed in his talk, he mentioned a valuable little nugget of wisdom that he phrased as the need to, or at least benefit to, practice a little "intellectual humility." I'd never heard it put that way before, but it resonated with me. At this time in our history, the benefit of the doubt and the respect for opposing views, along with the insatiable quest for fully understanding all sides to an issue or concept seems so important. With that in mind, I think I'm going to delve a little further into the issue by reading Fernbach's The Knowledge Illusion. And, I am definitely going to get to the bottom of this France thing. ☺

So, consider practicing a little Intellectual Humility. I know I could stand to do this.