Tuesday, February 28, 2017

30 Years Ago "That Kiss" happened with the release of Some Kind of Wonderful

John Hughes is undoubtedly the sage of teen films, and his short spectacular run of teen movies in the mid-1980s set the standard for teen cinema and "dramadies" for decades to come. Everyone knows the classics like Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club. But an equally endearing film that wasn't huge at the box office but developed an appropriate cult following in re-runs is Hughes' last film, Some Kind of Wonderful. The bittersweet comedy of Keith, Watts, and Ms. Amanda Jones turns 30 this week. And this classic story of romance and friendship endures decades later.

This month marks the 30th anniversaries of both the release of “Some Kind of Wonderful,” the last teen movie written by the genres’ 1980s svengali John Hughes, and the relationship between the film’s director Howard Deutch and star Lea Thompson, who met on set and began dating around the time of the “Wonderful” premiere. Unfairly branded as a gender-reversal retread of “Pretty in Pink,” a Hughes/Deutch collaboration from the year before, “Some Kind of Wonderful” was not a box office hit upon its release at the end of February 1987. Yet it endures as a late-arrival classic that holds its own among its better known Hughes siblings from the era, like “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Recent fair-minded portraits of young people and the uncertain boundaries of friendship and love — “Juno,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Edge of Seventeen” — can legitimately be called its nieces and nephews.
And, who could forget "that kiss":

Monday, February 27, 2017

Colorado must fix TABOR law on revenue/spending

The state budgets of both Illinois and Colorado - my two homes in the past 15 years - are rather screwed up, albeit in very different ways and for very different reasons. Basically, revenue doesn't match spending obligations and basic government responsibilities, and the laws and legislators of both states are so hamstrung as to be an almost Gordian knot of ideological absurdity. In Colorado, the issue has come to a head, as state transportation and education budgets are strained to the limit even as the state's economy is roaring and population is booming. Residents of the Rocky Mountain state can blame this inconsistency on a 25-year-old constitutional amendment known as TABOR, or the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. It was a law pushed through by a small group of anti-government zealots and sold to somewhat naive voters who simply wanted the right to vote on any tax increases. That "right" in itself is understandable. It's the correlary garbage of the law (that most voters never read or understood) that has caused such problems in a state that should be in much better shape. Now, as the law turns a quarter century, and the current crop of "yeoman legislators" seek to fill potholes and classrooms, the state is reflecting on the mess. This weekend the Denver Post pulled together some great pieces of commentary and analysis as food for thought, and tomorrow they will host a public forum on the issue. The most concise and accurate analysis of the problems comes from writer Tim Hoover who is asking legislators and voters to "Break antiquated tax policy of TABOR." Here's the problem in a nutshell:

Worse, though, TABOR has imposed a formula on state government that guarantees it will never be able to keep up with rising costs. TABOR says state revenue may only grow by the rate of inflation plus population every year. So if inflation is 2 percent and population grows by 2 percent, revenue can grow 4 percent. Any revenue collected above that limit must be rebated to taxpayers. This sounds like something based on economic policy. It isn’t. TABOR uses the Consumer Price Index as the guide to inflation, meaning that it measures increases in prices for clothing, food, plane tickets, toasters and so on. These are all consumer goods, not goods purchased by government. The state buys road construction, school teachers, college classrooms, public safety and other goods and services consumers don’t. The way government buys things is really not much different from how businesses buy things. Someone who owns a construction company might look at the price of lumber, bricks and construction workers. They wouldn’t try to gauge their costs based on the prices of shoes, cottage cheese and basketballs. Just as government does, businesses look at costs in their sector of the economy.
In effect, the people of Colorado could fix this problem quite easily. Re-write TABOR so that voters still have to approve any tax increases .... and scrap every other part of the law and its nonsense formulas. The tax approval is the one thing CO voters agree on, and many concede that they voted for it based on only that idea. In fact, many I've talked to admit they thought that was the only thing the law did. That limited knowledge is, in effect, the problem with democracy. But that's OK - the beauty of our republic is that our government and our laws can always be changed. It's just a question of whether people have the will to do so.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Edge of Seventeen - a smart, poignant teen film

For those of us in Generation X who were raised by the wisdom and insight of Mr. John Hughes and his often funny but always poignant 80s teen films, there is hope for the genre. If you grew up commiserating with Andy, Claire, John, Andrew, and Allison in The Breakfast Club, and you haven't had a chance to see writer/director Kelly Freemon Craig's film The Edge of Seventeen with Hailee Steinfeld, then you owe it to yourself to reserve an evening soon for this film. Our family recently sat down togther to spend time with the endearing yet neurotic Nadine as she struggles to make sense of her life and come to grips with things beyond her control ... like when your best and only friend starts dating your brother.

K Freemon Craig has crafted a raw and authentic story that is funny, poignant, innocent, and upifting all at the same time. In doing so, she has captured the same magic of authenticity to the teen experience that endeared Hughes' characters to us thirty years ago. That's some pretty high praise to be sure, and one film does not make a career, but I am impressed with the film's honesty in a portrayal of teen drama that engages without pandering, and informs without exaggerating. Like so many of us, Nadine is faced with emotional challenges that we can't fathom other people even beginning to understand. And Craig has embedded some sharp, honest, and direct lessons about the teen experience. The teen dramedy is a time-honored genre that too often falls short in deliving entertainment and a message in a balanced way. That's not the case with #Edgeof17 which may be "the best teen film in years."

The formats for expressing it may have changed—diary to Facebook post, notes passed in class to anxious text messages—but teen angst remains mostly the same. That’s a fact evidenced beautifully in the entirely winning new teen dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, a funny, perceptive, and deceptively deep look at a high-school junior’s very bad couple of weeks. (Opening November 18.) The film, from promising writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, traverses familiar teen territory: an impossible crush, a prickly-lovable teacher-mentor, a mom who just doesn’t understand. But Craig’s script, and her subtly artful direction, favor the minor chords of these old melodies, digging under the obvious jokes to examine what animates them. The Edge of Seventeen, for all its sprightly verve and wit, may be the best map of teen depression I’ve seen in a long time.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Matt Lewis and the Burkean, Kirk-ean story of Conservatism

"I'm a man without a party." 

That revelation was shared with me this weekend by an acquaintance, as we waxed philosophic about the political events of recent weeks. The President-elect's mystifying war with the media had left that former free-market Republican feeling as if he didn't recognize the political party of his youth. "I voted for Evan McMullen" he explained. It's not an uncommon feeling for many conservatives, though the reality is that many in the party no longer even understand what it means to be conservative. While that in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, it can be for those who are feeling "conservative, but not Republican."

I've been thinking a lot about political ideology in recent weeks, especially as the Republican Party continues to deal with the rift in its identity. For moderates like me, the GOP has been an unwelcome place for at least a few decades, and the Reagan Democrats have been left with little choice but to become independents. In realilty, the definitions of liberal/progressive and conservative have blurred in relation to political party, and as a student of political history, I am bothered by the appropriation of the terms. Maybe I shouldn't be. But language matters to me, and I challenge the current herd of Republicans who tout conservatism as their belief system when they don't really know or represent what that means. 

For that reason, I am really enjoying Matt Lewis' timely and thoughtful examination of politics and party, Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections ... Lewis is definitely one of the rising stars in conservative commentary, and his well-researched history and analysis of conservatism and its relationship to the GOP is insightful to say the least. It's quite a sad development that "a majority of registered GOP voters don't even know what the acronym stands for," and most have never heard of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk. Perhaps they don't care, and maybe that knowledge doesn't matter. Still, knowledge and education matter for those who think critically about their world. And, like the work of George Will and David Frum before him, Lewis has some important conclusions about the state of conservatism and the Republican Party.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Compulsory National Service

Went to a debate tournament this week - and had the most ridiculous argument about the idea of "compulsive national service." Is it a good idea? Uh .... no. Not even close to a good idea.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Debate Class and our partisan divide

I love Speech & Debate, and I have no doubt that it's one of the best classes/programs in all of public education for preparing students for college, careers, and life. In fact, if I could recommend one class that every student should take, it's probably debate (though that is an issue never worth arguing about). Fortunately for me and my kids, I work at a high school with one of the top programs in the country, and it has always been a given that my kids would be in Speech & Debate. In fact, when I went on my first debate trip to a great tournament at George Mason University, I returned home to tell my wife and kids that our children "are taking debate." So, I had an interesting thought when I recently mentioned to a friend that I was joining our debate team on a trip to the annual national tournament at U-Cal-Berkely. So, my very Republican friend asked me, "Are there any conservatives in speech and debate?"

That got me to thinking:  Could debate class be the key to easing our partisan divide?

Clearly, the question was a loaded one because the asker tends to believe in stereotypes about public education. And, of course, the tournament in question is being held in one of the premier bastions of liberalism. It didn't help that Berkeley made news last week for being so absurdly anti-free speech. Actually, the school itself wasn't - but that's another story. And the point is really this - debate class is not about Democrats vs Republicans, and it's not about liberals vs. conservatives. It's simply about pro vs con or aff vs neg. In debate fields of competition, the teams are always either "affirming" (aff) or "negating" (neg) a resolution. And teams must always prepare and argue both sides because they don't know their side until they enter the room.

Kids who participate in Speech and Debate are often the most well-informed citizens one issues of public policy. Whether they are debating the value of US-China relations or whether the US should increase its engagement with Cuba, these kids tend to geek out on being smart while competing to be the most informed and effective speaker in the room. It's not about politics and ideology, and it's certainly not about political parties. It's about winning an academic competition. Granted, I don't know if speakers and debaters actually become more tolerant and accomodating of opposing views. But they are certainly aware of all pertinent sides, issues, and details.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Where are the Conservatives in the GOP?

It seems everything is completely up for grabs when it comes to politics and legislating and civics these days, and many are feeling like down is up and we're through the looking glass. There was a time when we had two leading ideologies and two political parties, and they worked the basics of government out through a system of checks and balances and negotiation. Now, with the ascension of "President Bannon," many moderate voters and pragmatic Americans are wondering just what the heck has happened to the Republic. For me, one sadly mystifying comment came from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan this week in an interview with Judy Woodruff. In downplaying the obviously troubling relationship that Paul Ryan has, and will continue to have with the White House, the Speaker said of Steve Bannon, "We are different kinds of conservatives."

Uh, actually, Paul .... no. Neither you nor Steve Bannon is a conservative.

To paraphrase one of the best burns in contemporary political discourse, I'd offer this to Speaker Ryan:  "I knew conservatism. Conservatism was my friend. You, sir, are no conservative."

Conservatism as a political ideology was established during the Age of Reason to oppose radical change which threatened the stability of society through a challenge to its institutions and foundations. Edmund Burke was a primary voice of that establishment, and true conservatives will approach volatile political issues with a sense of prudence and Burkean evaluation. In the contemporary age, one of the most stable and erudite voices of conservatism is scholar and critic George Will, and if contemporary Americans are truly interested in understanding how conservatism should function today, they need look no furthur than Will's profound, succinct, and insightful treatise Statecraft as Soulcraft. 

In ''Statecraft as Soulcraft,'' his first book-length work, Mr. Will laments the lack of genuine conservatives in American politics and shows how the best conservative thought is lost even on the most conservative President in decades. ''I will do many things for my country,'' writes Mr. Will, ''but I will not pretend that the careers of, say, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt involve serious philosophical differences.'' Conservatives like Mr. Reagan attack ''big government,'' but Mr. Will is more concerned with the reluctance of modern government to cultivate the moral character of its citizens. He faults conservatives for agreeing with liberals that the ''inner life'' of citizens - our ''sentiments, manners and moral opinions'' -is none of the government's business. Mr. Will insists that ''statecraft is soulcraft.'' Government cannot be neutral on major moral issues and shouldn't try. ''Just as all education is moral education because learning conditions conduct, much legislation is moral legislation because it conditions the action and the thought of the nation in broad and important spheres of life.''

Having grown up in a very Republican household in a pretty Democratic county, but rather conservative region, my early political education came with the Reagan Revolution. That time was when I first began to investigate what politics and political parties really meant. In my life I have pretty much explored all the schools of thought. Interestingly, I have to argue that the early 1980s might be the last time the Republican Party was actually conservative. After that time, the GOP became a party of a certain ideology and positions, but it was not a platform that I easily identify as conservative. No, instead, I would just say that the GOP is simply a party of "Republicanism."  And, I'm not the only one to suspect and expose this weird dichotomy that has led to a real crisis in American political thought.

People like Ross Douthat have some solid ideas about the GOP and conservatism which he outlined in his book Grand New Party: How the Republican PartyHowever, while some may argue that the 2016 election actually signified the return of the working class to the GOP, I could hardly stomach the idea that Douthat supports the current regime and its approach. Another rising political pundit named Matt Lewis has some valuable insight in his book Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP went from the party of Reagan to the Party of Trump. However, neither of these really get at the true spirit of conservatism the way someone like George Will does. One astute thinker who might be on the right track is someone like David Frum who wrote Comeback: Conservatism that Can Win Again. Yet even a great thinker like Frum is still too far removed from the true spirit of conservatism when he gets hung up on tax rates and supply side thinking. 

So, who has some thoughts on the spirit of conservatism that can match up with the Burkean roots and the succinct insight of George Will and his application of conservatism to contemporary America? Well, after George I like to look to a great contemporary writer and thinker by the name of Rod Dreher.  Dreher, a writer and editor who has worked for the National Review and Weekly Standard and is now the editor and chief blogger for The American Conservative, is a pragmatic and thoughtful conservative who doesn't let his politics mess with his ideology and vice versa. While Dreher's conservatism is a bit heavy on the religious side at times, I don't think I've enjoyed another conservative treatise since Will's Statecraft more than I did Dreher's Crunch Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Farmers [and more] Can Save America. 

In Crunchy Cons, Dreher reports on the amazing depth and scope of this phenomenon, which is redefining the taxonomy of America’s political and cultural landscape. At a time when the Republican party, and the conservative movement in general, is bitterly divided over what it means to be a conservative, Dreher introduces us to people who are pioneering a way back to the future by reclaiming what’s best in conservatism—people who believe that being a truly committed conservative today means protecting the environment, standing against the depredations of big business, returning to traditional religion, and living out conservative godfather Russell Kirk’s teaching that the family is the institution most necessary to preserve.

The sad reality is that conservatism doesn't even really mean anything anymore, especially in light of the electoral fiasco of November. And, I have little faith in Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell to lead the country back to the Right. But perhaps if a few individuals do some reading and thinking and start acting locally, we might have some hope for a return to reason a few years from now.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Patriots Win another Super Bowl ... in mystifying way - Spy-gate, Part II?

OK, I'm gonna say it - I am not a Pats fan. That wasn't always the case. I liked the Pats growing up, and for some strange reason I was a big Pats fan during the Drew Bledsoe seasons. And, I will concede that Tom Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. No doubt. If I were putting together a team, either in a fantasy league or for real, I would always choose Tom Brady if possible. And I would never bet against him.

That said, I am not happy about this "historic comeback to win Super Bowl LI."

It all seems a little odd to me. Let's not forget that Bill Belicheck and Tom Brady and little boy McD have all been proven to be cheaters in the game of football. It goes all the way back to that unexpected upset of the Rams in 2001 - after which the first rumors of Spy-gate surfaced. While those accusations were never fully validated, the same nefarious actions from Josh McDaniels a decade later in Denver pretty much assured that the suspicion of corruption was at the very least reasonable.

In this game against the Falcolns, the legendary Tom Brady could not seem to hit a receiver in the first half. His inept overthrows and flubbed passes were so noticeable as to be almost a joke. The Pats were down 28-3 in a game that appeared to be a potential blowout. And then, as if by magic, the Patriots went in to the locker room for an extended halftime, and they came out by picking apart the Falcolns defense like they knew their every move. And, of course, then the Falcolns' dynamite flawless offense with "kid mastermind" Kyle Shanahan completely and nonsensically stalled out and were shut down by the Pats seemingly inept defense - it was almost like the Pats knew which plays were coming.

What magic potion did Brady drink at halftime? What insightful film did they unearth in that locker room?

Yep, the Pats are a great team, a true dynasty. And truly Brady is a legendary quarterback.

But legends are generally a bit detached from reality. Is this Spy-gate, Part Deux?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Far too many "College-educated" kids can't write

As I've noted many times before, teachers are pretty good at assigning writing but not so much at teaching kids how to do it. Especially at the high school level and especially in content areas other than English class, too many teachers assign and grade essays and reports without ever teaching kids how to write for their class. It's as if educators believe that the skills of reading and writing are solely the English teachers' domain - they're not. Reading and writing are learning skills; they are academic skills. They are not just the language arts domain. And, currently, too many kids are graduating high school and college with very limited writing and reasoning skills. That concern and warning comes most recently from education researcher and writer Marc Tucker who opines in EdWeek.org "Our Students Can't Write Very Well - It's No Mystery Why."

My friend Will Fitzhugh points out that high school students are rarely required to read entire works of fiction and are almost never asked to read entire works of non-fiction.  I know of no good writers who are not also good readers. More directly to the point, high school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed.
Writing is a craft.  Like any other craft, it is learned only by doing it, over and over and over, at increasing levels of challenge, under the watchful eye of an expert.  How on earth are our students to learn to write if we do not ask them to write, and write a lot, and write well?  The reason, of course, that they are not asked to write much is because their ability to write a substantial paper is not tested.  And why, in this age of accountability, when we judge teachers by how well their students do on the test, would we expect their students to write well when we do not test their ability to write a good paper, 10 to 20 pages in length. Our own research tells us that a large fraction of community college professors do not assign writing to their students because their students cannot write and the professors do not consider themselves to be writing teachers. It is no wonder that employers like us find it so hard to find candidates with serviceable writing skills.  
Special thanks to Joanne Jacobs for the link to this post.

I believe a great many educators across all content areas could benefit from programs like The National Writing Project and the Colorado Writing Project.