Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Shrek Factor

“Mr. Mazenko, has your son seen …” That question, followed by the title of the latest offering from Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks, has opened up endless discussion in my classes about choices parents make in raising their children.

My students, as well as colleagues and other parents, are often shocked to know that my four-year-old son has never seen any of the movies they mention. It gets worse when people learn my son has never seen any movies. Inevitably, my answer comes, creating groans as countless hands shoot in the air to offer a comment. “No,” I say, “my son hasn’t seen Shrek. He’s only four years old.”

Though it may seem snide, I tend to qualify my answer by giving my son’s age, implying to my audience that it’s obvious why he hasn’t seen it. He’s too young. However, knowing my belief is not the norm, I’m certain this will extend the conversation, rather than bring it to a conclusion. I’m under no illusion that my audience will hear my son’s age and think, “Oh, of course he hasn’t seen it. Shrek isn’t appropriate for young children.” Instead, I know they believe that the movie is entirely acceptable for him.

They often know, or at least anticipate my objections, but they have an answer. The movie, they believe, offers the best of both worlds. It’s a movie that has qualities both young children and adults will enjoy. “But he won’t even get the adult humor,” they tell me. “It goes right over kids’ heads.” Here is where we part ways in the discussion. They believe this blend of adult material into children’s films doesn’t matter. I fundamentally disagree.

I think the essence of the argument comes down to a common belief that what we don’t know won’t hurt us. If my son doesn’t understand the sexual innuendoes uttered by the donkey in Shrek or the genie in Alladin, then it shouldn’t matter that he hears them. As a parent, however, I don’t want to make decisions that way. For me, it’s not about whether or not it will hurt my children. It’s about whether it will help them. Parenting decisions should be made on what is best for the child. Will he suffer psychological scarring if he sees the movie? Maybe not. Probably not. But neither will he suffer if he doesn’t see it. His life will not be lessened for lack of a movie. “But it’s so funny,” they say. “You’re depriving your son of one the great joys in life. Movies like Shrek and Aladdin and The Lion King are part of childhood.” That perspective saddens me.

Childhood is not about any one movie or story or toy or food or activity. Childhood is not about commodities at all. I truly believe my son will benefit more and will deprive more pleasure from digging for worms and chasing butterflies and riding his bike. I will see more joy on his face when he is tickling and being tickled by his younger sister than I will when he is staring at a movie or TV screen and giggling every once in a while.

In books such as The Disappearance of Childhood and Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, social critic Neil Postman explains that childhood is really an invention of the contemporary world. Prior to that time, children were predominantly dressed the same, viewed the same, and treated the same as adults. It wasn’t until people like Rousseau in his seminal work Emille that society began to look at the different cognitive and emotional development of children. Children should have different thoughts than adults. They should use different language, they should wear different clothes, and, in terms of Shrek, they should have different forms of entertainment.

According to Postman, the fundamental difference between childhood and adulthood is access to information. Adults quite simply know things that children don’t. There are adult words and adult conversations. There are adult situations and adult activities. If you think about it, in all coming-of-age literature, the loss of innocence comes when the children become aware of the adult world. The original loss of innocence came when man ate from the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve discovered shame. They were no longer innocent because they had gained more information.

If information is different for adults and children, then it’s not a stretch for entertainment to be different as well. I can watch a half-hour of Clifford with my son and not be bored simply because there is no adult humor. Media corporations, however, have figured out that they can double their revenues by creating animated films that will draw audiences both young and old. Thus, based on the idea of access to information, if we develop entertainment, such as Shrek, which is marketed to kids and adults, we have effectively eliminated childhood.

Interestingly, contemporary television, notably sitcoms, adds to this societal dilemma by blurring the lines between children’s and adult’s roles. Watching shows such as According to Jim and Two and a Half Men, I am struck by the fact that the adult and child characters are predominantly the same. They use the same language. There is no discernable difference between the words and patterns they use, nor the topics they discuss. Contemporary fashion is important, too, as both the adults and children wear the same styles of clothing. At times, the kids are portrayed as more mature than their parents. Obviously, it is the irony and sarcasm of these situations that makes them humorous. I will concede that that is precisely the writers’ point. But a line is blurred if this becomes entertainment for all ages. When a five-year-old tells me that American Idol is her favorite show, I cringe, knowing the harshness of Simon’s language is inappropriate for her once-innocent ears.

People say you can’t shelter your children from the harsh realities of the world forever, and I most certainly agree. As an educator who teaches countless examples of coming-of-age literature, I couldn’t agree more. Teaching high school, it is my job to be with children as they grow into adults. I can’t protect my son forever, but I can certainly shelter him at the age of four. That is a far cry from shielding him from the teachings of Darwin when he is in high school. Though many critics of my choices make that comparison.

“No,” I tell them. “My son hasn’t seen Shrek.” This always shocks and disappoints them. Imagine what they’ll think when they learn he doesn’t eat candy.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Crisis in Boys' Education?

Is there a crisis in the academic achievement of boys? Are boys in trouble? Does gender matter? There has been much written of this in the past few years, and Newsweek adds to the discussion this week with an article entitled "Struggling School-Age Boys." I have no clear answer to my first two questions, but the third is undoubtedly "yes." Each year I begin my freshman English classes with a study of The Lord of the Flies, and the class discusses the issue of gender. Because the book begins with the line, "The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down ..." I ask my students to ponder why it's about boys. William Golding once opined that when you get right down to it, the fourteen-year-old boy is the closest manifestation of true evil you'll find anywhere in the world. This always draws smiles from the girls, shrugs from the boys. However, it's a serious question. We discuss the reality that girls sometimes outnumber boys 3 to 1 in honors classes, whereas boys outnumber girls 10 to 1 in disciplinary referrals and suspensions. Clearly, there is a problem, and clearly gender matters.

Dr. Leonard Sax has written extensively about this issue in the book Why Gender Matters, and it is a book that I recommend each year to teachers and parents. Interestingly, Sax notes such issues as the research that shows boys don't hear as well as girls. Now, consider that reality when 90% of kindergarten and primary teachers are female with soft voices. Is it that Johnny is being bad in the back of the class, or does he just not hear what is going on? Could this influence disciplinary situations? Could this be a rationale behind the skyrocketing diagnoses of ADD/ADHD in children, predominantly boys, as young as three? What about the research on psycho-motor skills development that puts girls as much as 14 months out in front? Should we consider this when we put pencils in the hands of kindergarteners and expect them to write? How does Johnny feel when Suzie's penmanship is praised, but he's asked to try a little harder.

These are all issues that society needs to spend much more time discussing.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Immigrants and English

As if they read my blog last night, the Denver Post published a story today entitled "Americanizing New Arrivals," which addressed the issue of English acquisition among immigrants. According to the story, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Citizenship (so much for Republicans reducing bureaucracy) will offer new programs designed to help immigrants assimilate. No word on whether they'll be checking papers at the door, but the implication is that various offices will be opened and businesses enlisted to aid in the study of English and tutoring for the citizenship test. In all honesty, this seems like a great idea, though I am wondering how it will play among the English-only/deport-the-illegals wing of the Republicans. The plan is certainly a practical approach, though its impetus smacks of naivete in terms of immigrants and the history of assimilation in this country.

The story begins by noting "Foreign-language signs touting Spanish-language preschool, Vietnamese groceries, Ethiopian church services, Korean car repair and Russian money-exchange hint at Denver's fast-growing immigrant cocoons that nurture ties to the old country." Clearly, there are many people in the country who are quite unnerved that immigrants don't immediately abandon their native culture, not to mention the language (because acquiring a new language is just so easy, especially for populations not necessarily well-educated in their first language). However, there have always been Little Italys, Greektowns, Chinatowns, etc. In my small hometown of Alton, Illinois, I grew up with three Catholic churches within blocks of each other - each had historically different ethnicities. I've also heard of many people whose great-grandparents never really picked up English, though their grandparents and parents were fluent English speakers.

That's the way it's always been, and that's the way it will always be. Critics tend to be naive about the history of the United States, and that ignorance often leads people to be afraid of the wrong things.

Monday, September 8, 2008

English and the Language Police

Recently, someone forwarded a YouTube video to me entitled "A Second American Revolution," and among the somewhat extreme rants about the demise of America and the threat to American culture was a clear emphasis on the need to make English the national language of the United States. I'll admit I've often been baffled by this issue, and while I don't know why I'd have any serious problem with the concept, something about the people who rail about it puts me off, and I tend to oppose it. Thus, I am an English teacher who is not in favor of making English the national language of the United States. However, that's true only in the sense that I'm not in favor of making any language the national language of the United States. For me, it is a rather redundant situation that is the equivalent of letting the world, as well as our own citizens, know that our country borders Mexico and Canada.

I've heard the frustration from people who are shocked that in America they need to "press 1 for English," and I can honestly understand the sense of bewilderment. Yet, I have to say that I don't imagine passing a law declaring English as the national language will eliminate that phone message. This being a free country, I would imagine any business can put whatever they want on their directory, and we will all still be pressing 1 for English. And, if the business gets a lot of Spanish-speaking callers, they're going to leave the option to press 2. It's not like a national language law will stop people from speaking other languages, nor should it. Really, how is the government going to stop all the Spanish speakers (code word for illegal immigrants) if they can't find them in the first place?

I've heard that the law would prevent licensing exams from being offered in foreign languages, but I'm not sure this is such a good idea. Obviously, there are legitimate reasons for this, but I would imagine a working knowledge of English is necessary to run most businesses. Additionally, the degree of fluency necessary to test well is not the same as being able to adequately run a shop or do manual labor. When I lived in Taiwan teaching English, I never passed the proficiency of a three-year-old in speaking Chinese, yet I was able to live a productive life for five years. All the research shows that by the second generation, 90% of American immigrants are fluent in English. While the parents may not ever acquire fluency - mainly because they're working too hard to support their family to take English classes - the children almost always are. Considering how bad Americans are at retaining their high school Spanish or French, perhaps we should cut some people some slack.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Government Versus the Free Market

In today's Denver Post I was intrigued by John Andrew's citing of "Ten Principles" from Joe Bast of the Heartland Institute, so I did what all educated voters should do which is follow up on the source. Surprisingly, the alleged "non-partisan" source is actually heading a clearly conservative, most likely libertarian, think tank. Bast is listed as president of the Heartland Institute, and while his biography refers to his history as a high school debater who went to college, there is no information to qualify him as a source on energy, pollution, climate change, or health care. There are no clear credentials for his "academics" listed either. However, Andrews implies his principles are the last word on all these issues.

I would concur with his position that energy independence is an illusion, at least while we are using the internal combustion engine, though that's not a given. While using oil, we will always be importing it, but there's no reason to commit to always using it. When the Chevy Volt or Honda's new hydrogen fuel cell hit the road, we may be well on our way to independence, considering coal is not scarce here. I realize these are long term solutions; however, I wouldn't say we will always depend on oil, especially considering new drilling will take years to go on-line. Andrews does note that oil is a global commodity. Thus, drilling here does not mean the oil will stay here - Shell, BP, and Chevron will sell all oil - even that found in ANWAR - on the open market; sadly, American voters don't realize this.

However, Mr. Bast and Mr. Andrews should realize that the free market won't provide health insurance freely, and the current system is becoming unbearable for many voters. From a market perspective, health insurance companies are in the business of collecting premiums and denying claims - that is how money is made. That is why no business would choose to cover - for anything less than astronomical premiums - people with pre-existing conditions. It is in the interest of all nations to have their citizens covered. If I have a child with leukemia, a shift to HSAs or the ability to buy insurance across state lines is not going to help me at all. That is why large pools work effectively; they disperse the risk. That said, a blend of public and private coverage like the Wyden-Bennett plan or extending FEHPB to all Americans is the only thing that middle class voters are going to accept. Otherwise, they will be eventually priced out of free market coverage. Giving a $5000 tax credit to cover premiums that average $12000 for a population with an income of $420000 is the same fuzzy math we've seen for eight years, at which time we've seen an increasingly de-regulated economy run by conservatives generate huge deficits, debt, and financial precariousness.

In terms of the free market, I concur that less regulation can free up markets to respond to need. However, we must also admit that the free market can be irresponsible in search of quick profits. Let's not pretend that both Paulson and Bernancke don't acknowledge that an overly de-regulated mortgage industry has contributed to, if not outright caused, our current crisis. Similar criticisms can be said of the credit and energy industry. No "non-partisan" critic or researcher would argue that de-regulation didn't contribute to Enron's collapse. No one can logically argue that if we didn't regulate industry we wouldn't return to eras of widespread pollution that led to such tragedies as the Cuyahoga River in the 1970s. In terms of industry regulation, a logical, rational voter would follow Reagan's mantra of "trust, but verify." If we have a problem with illegal immigrants in the country, we must admit that industry will hire them if we don't regulate them. This seems to be common sense to me. Belief in free-market capitalism can't be purely ideological; we must be pragmatic.

I'm a fiscal conservative, but, like Ronald Reagan - the true not mythical one, I'm a pragmatist. I'm hoping voters will be seek to be more informed on the actual statistics before choosing McCain's fiscal warts.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Taxes and Government Investment

Two recent articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times have argued for the importance of taxpayer funded research as the lifeblood of innovation in American society. In this election year that comes on top of an economy struggling to right itself, the differences in philosophy concerning the role of government in the economy is of paramount importance. Though I am generally a proponent of fiscal conservatism, I do not walk lock-in-step with the anti-tax, limited-to-the-point-of-incompetent-government crowd. Being a teacher as well, I am not inclined to accept that government employees cannot do things well, though questions of efficiency are always valid. In an article titled "Tax. Spend. Create Jobs" John E. Schwarz of the Washington Post explained that the Democrats have yet to create a compelling narrative about the way the economy performs under Democrats versus the way it does under Republicans. Because the Democrats are more likely to invest in research and infrastructure improvements, the credit should go to the side that believes the government should play a more active role in the economy.

This idea is mirrored in a piece titled "Ideas Need Sowing" by Clair Cain Miller of the New York Times. Miller describes concerns by people such as Judy Estrin, a chief technology officer for Cisco Systems, who worry about decreasing innovation in American business. She recently published her ideas in a book called "Closing the Innovation Gap," where she laments a lag in new product development among many business. She points to ideas such as the iPod which are actually close to a decade old. One of the problems that both Schwarz and Estrin see is a lack of investment in innovation. Venture capitalists have never been big on investing in the early stages of research, and up until this decade, the federal government was there instead as the impetus. Of note is the idea that the growth of innovation in business is often supported by strong financing from the government at the university and institute levels. The business world is often reluctant to fund projects without immediate promise of return, whereas the government will, or at least has in the heyday of American business.

Thus, much of our innovation from aerospace to communications to computers to the internet to medicine was initially funded at the federal level. When that funding dries up due to the anti-tax crowd, so does American innovation.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The First Week of School

The first week of school this year coincided with the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Needless to say, I have been overwhelmed by the excitement and promise of a new group of students at the same time as we were witnessing a truly historic moment with the nomination and acceptance speech of Barack Obama. The moment was not lost on any of us, and like the start of a new year always does for me, this convention and that speech energized this town and inspired people in many ways. Good for Obama, and good for America. I am proud of us all, and I continue to have faith in the nations ability to be "that shining city on the hill." Regardless of our political views, it seemed that the monumental significance of Obama's nomination was not lost on many. I was proud to see no one who sought to diminish the progress this represents for America, and it was great to see the commercial from Senator McCain acknowledging that as well.

There is hope for us all. God bless America.