When an act of respect becomes an act of rebellion, it's a clear sign that our culture has begun to veer off the rails. This past week, Milliken University football player Connor Brewer exercised his freedom of speech and participation by standing for the national anthem...by himself. His teammates agreed to stay in the locker room during the pre-game ritual as a form of protest, but Connor decided he couldn't follow the crowd. He stood on the sideline alone for the anthem. And in perhaps the most classy move of all, he refused to be interviewed afterward, out of respect for his team. Quietly standing up for tradition and honoring the sacrifice of others, even when it's lonely, is worthy of recognition. Well done, Connor.
Photo credit: Jeff Hill
So I was watching Dancing with the Stars the other night (yes, go ahead with the mocking, I'll wait), and an important teaching point was raised. Calvin Johnson, former NFL wide receiver and future Hall-of-Famer, had just finished his routine, and backstage Erin Andrews started to ask him a question. She said, "A show like this is almost unfair for someone like you because you take criticism so well..." and then asked about how he stays focused to learn the new dances. Erin is right. The ability to take criticism gives you a life advantage.
So many students today, especially those in skill-based classes like writing, get upset when receiving criticism. They think a paper with red marks is some sort of personal affront, rather than advice on how to improve. Because of Johnson's career in athletics, his whole life has required hearing criticism from coaches--he knows how to take it, so he has an advantage over those contestants that have never been pushed to their limit in learning something new.
I've always enjoyed having athletes in my classes because, though sometimes their academic skills are hit or miss, I've never once had a problem with an athlete fighting me about how he/she did on a paper. They tend to be tougher because that's what it takes to be an athlete. (The same holds true for those students I've had that have served in the military. They never complain, and I love them for it.)
If you want to get ahead in life, be ready for criticism. You are going to screw up sometimes, and you will always have to acquire new skills to adapt to the world. If you can't take it when someone corrects you or pushes you to become better, you are going to fall behind those people who can. Athletes have already developed thick skin, and others like them will have a distinct advantage over you if you don't toughen up too. So put on your dancin' shoes, and embrace criticism. That's the only way to get better.
Yesterday would have been the birthday of one of the sharpest authors in history, Oscar Wilde. Known for his witticisms and poignant social critiques, few writers are quoted as often as he. In honor of Mr. Wilde, here are my five favorites:
1. It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.
2. In England, an inventor is regarded almost as a crazy man, and in too many instances, invention ends in disappointment and poverty. In America, an inventor is honoured, help is forthcoming, and the exercise of ingenuity, the application of science to the work of man, is there the shortest road to wealth.
3. A man who does not think for himself does not think at all.
4. Life is never fair, and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.
5. The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.
It was announced yesterday that folk/rock music icon Bob Dylan would be this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now, I'm not big on handing out prizes for artistic endeavors (or anything else for that matter), but this one is intriguing. The Academy stated that Dylan is worthy for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This selection also signals a noticeable blurring of the defining qualities of "high art" (poetry, novels, etc.) and commercial art, which I tend to like.
While most young people may not know much about the legendary songwriter, perhaps they have heard of some of his most famous songs: "The Times They Are a-Changin'," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Hurricane," "All Along the Watchtower," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," or "Blowin' in the Wind." But I actually prefer some of his lesser-known works. So I dug through some of my old cds (yes, those still exist) and picked out my personal Dylan favorites. I clearly have a Blood on the Tracks bias, but this offers a decent sample. Here is a playlist that I like, and I hope you will too. Happy Friday.
1. "Positively 4th Street" (1964)
2. "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" (1975)
3. "Most of the Time" (1989)
4. "With God On Our Side" (1964)
5. "Things Have Changed" (2000)
6. "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues (1965)
7. "Tangled Up in Blue" (1975)
8. "Simple Twist of Fate" (1975)
9. "If You See Her, Say Hello" (1975)
10. "Forever Young" (1974)
11. "Shelter from the Storm" (1975)
12. "Not Dark Yet" (1997)
This new piece, from Northwestern University professor Gary Saul Morson, is one that should be read by anyone affiliated with education, and most definitely by English teachers specifically.
If one of the fundamental goals of education is to create a sense of morality and empathy, and an awareness of the complexity of human life, there is no better tool than literature. Nothing else allows us to place ourselves psychologically in an endless array of life situations so that we may improve our understanding of the world and its human inhabitants. Literature is fundamental to societal interactions and to individual development. And the decline in literary study can largely be blamed on those most responsible for protecting it. Morson writes:
"Some literary critics and teachers have tried to “de-literize” literature. They try to remove the essential literary act of experiencing other points of view by treating literature as propaganda that endorses what one already believes, or by only assigning works by approved authors with an approved message — the simpler and less ambiguous the better. That is what so many high school (and college) English teachers do, not only because it is gratifying to get students to share one’s own beliefs, but also because it is a lot easier to teach such works. One can do it without ever having loved a literary work at all. One reason for the current “crisis in the humanities” and the rapid decline in enrollments in literature courses may be that students are bound to wonder why they should put in the hard work to read long books only to learn what they already knew."
Read the whole article, then put it in your files or post it on your office wall. Remind yourself why literature matters--not just for our minds, but for our souls. And pass on that message to everyone you know.
I came across an article the other day that I thought was a great reminder of how the writing we do in English classes can look very much like the work we may do in a future career. And one employer offers her advice on using your writing to get noticed for that job. What you may notice here is how similar she sounds to an English teacher, even though she works in the business world. So, if you think the quality of your writing is something only mean English teachers look at, think again. Your future boss won't just put a B- on your work; she might just throw it in the trash. Here's why:
1. The Basics
The author describes how writing with fundamental flaws, such as grammar mistakes, instantly get tossed in the garbage. Her reasoning, in very English-teachery language, is that it feels like the applicant rushed through the writing and doesn't really care about this job. She also mentions how phony, fluffy writing that sounds like sucking up and filling space gets immediately discarded. Get to the point, be clear, and be specific, she says.
2. Your Opening
The author hates looking at applications that say what you're applying for. She knows what you're applying for, so you don't have to tell her. This sounds very familiar in student writing when a thesis statement appears that says, "In this essay, I will be telling you about..." Yeah, I can see that you wrote it for this assignment--I'm holding it in my hands, and your name is at the top. Don't tell me what you're going to tell me--just tell me. Your job, she says is to get your reader to keep reading, not want to give up out of boredom from the first sentence. Great advice for all English students, no matter what the writing task is.
3. Using Examples
It can be easy when writing an application letter to simply list qualifications, skills, and achievements. Similarly, when writing a paper for class, it can be easy to simply list arguments, evidence, or sources. But in neither venue is the reader going to find this interesting. Be specific. Be relevant. Explain why this piece of information is important to this precise point of discussion. An employer, like an English teacher, is looking for clarity and a unique perspective. The former wants to hire someone who can provide those things, just as an English teacher wants to give an A to that type of writer.
Read the article, and save it for when you start thinking about applying for jobs. Your writing will matter--trust the author. And your English teacher you have right now won't be the only one grading you in life.
With the second presidential debate coming up on Sunday, there's no better way to get prepared than to watch the latest brilliant video from the folks at Bad Lip Reading on the first debate.
Enjoy, and may both candidates fall into a sarlacc pit underneath the podium.
This Wolverine is my hero of the week.
Sometimes in life, the best argument against absurdity is more absurdity. That is just what University of Michigan student Grant Stroble chose to do when the campus recently offered a new opportunity to allow students to designate their own pronouns or titles on course rosters. This policy was put together by a pronoun committee. Yes, you read that correctly. And, yes, this is what your tax and tuition dollars are paying for at public schools like UM. Stroble decided to participate in the initiative and, from now on, must be addressed by his professors and fellow classmates as "His Majesty."
He didn't take to the streets in angry protest. He didn't seek a safe space to avoid interacting with others. He simply used the policy in place to simultaneously be respectful of everyone and promote inclusiveness, while demonstrating the silliness of arbitrary social positions. Nice work, kid.
The new book by Charles J. Sykes, Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education, is a powerful exposé of what is plaguing our higher education system. From professors to tuition, administrative bloat to classroom scandals, Sykes attacks the academic establishment from all sides and then offers a concluding remedy to repair American universities. This book, though a polemic that will certainly shock and annoy professional intellectuals, is a must read for young people and their parents preparing to make decisions about where to go to college.
Sykes has been a prolific writer on educational and social issues for a few decades now, and some ideas in Fail U. have been described in ProfScam (1988), Dumbing Down our Kids (1995), and elsewhere. But his latest text’s thorough coverage of topical issues and timeliness amid the higher education debates makes it particularly worthwhile. Ultimately, Sykes asks, is any of this worth it?
We constantly hear about how expensive college has become over the last 30 years, how young people not only can’t afford tuition but then can’t afford to pay back the money they are able to acquire. And politicians and university officials think they have solutions to increase access, reduce debt, and improve quality. But few ever ask why we are in this mess in the first place. Sykes lays blame on a variety of culprits.
He thoroughly discusses the wasteful spending that is frighteningly common on college campuses. He reveals the massive increase in university administration that costs millions but yields few results. He gives countless examples of luxurious building projects meant to entice prospective students but never produce improved learning. He highlights professors that rarely teach or meet with students yet earn massive grants and salaries for doing “research” no one cares about. If you want to know what is causing those inflated tuition prices, Sykes argues, here are a few places to start.
Sykes also criticizes the proliferation of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “microaggressions” that now define the college experience. Campuses have, ironically, become more intolerant than ever, as the freedom to discuss real ideas has been replaced by intrusive rules for protecting sensitivities. Some schools promote blame studies more than actual academic disciplines, which has led to a decrease in student preparedness for future work. Sykes believes current academic culture has drifted so far away from its original intent that it simply isn’t worth the exorbitant cost.
Young people and their parents today are being defrauded, Sykes contends. They are asked to spend six figures on an opportunity they believe will put them on the path to success. But no one tells them why the tuition fees are so high or what exactly they will learn during their four years. There is no clearly defined correlation between a college degree and the sacrifice required to obtain one. Today’s students, he argues, are mindlessly following the herd through the ivy-covered gates, but end up being led off a cliff and falling into financial and intellectual ruin.
Sykes believes the proliferation of free streaming courses, notably MOOCs (massive open online courses), will provide a form of revolution to the traditional, expensive, and outdated education still in place on most college campuses. The opportunity to watch lectures online, work on projects at a faster pace, and receive certifications based on performance (instead of diplomas for simply surviving four years and paying a huge bill) will lead to a more educated and financially successful populace. Only time will tell if Sykes’s prediction will prove accurate.
While Sykes is clearly disappointed in the state of higher education, and he offers an extensive works cited list backing up his frustrations, he may not be arguing against college altogether. He simply seeks a change in a failed system and the potential for alternatives. He believes people should understand what they are committing to and consider important ramifications. While Sykes is harsh at times, and professors and administrators won’t agree with most of his claims, if only a fraction of what he describes is actually occurring on America’s campuses, our future may be in trouble. Fail U. is for anyone who wonders what really goes on at college. And anyone starting to sift through catalogs and fill out applications should know what they are getting themselves into.
A useful column was published last week in the school newspaper at Brown University about the importance of creative writing classes. The student author does a fine job of explaining why creative writing isn't just for imaginative people or English majors. Writing, in any form, allows for self-examination and a methodology for process improvement. And while other classes may help your writing, the author writes, "The courses in the English and literary arts departments are tailored to zero in on specific aspects of your writing that need the most work. They can also push you out of your comfort zone in the best possible way. Rest assured, even if you decide not to write creatively ever again, the lessons you learn can help you with any other form of writing or editing."
So as you start thinking of what to sign up for next semester, yes, make sure to get those pre-reqs and major studies covered. But think about trying a creative writing course. The author adds, "These courses are helpful to anyone interested in improving their writing and communication skills. Any field we enter after graduation — from scientific research to finance and consulting — will require at least some writing know-how." Whether it's fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenwriting, play-writing, or any other imaginative endeavor, you will not only learn a bit about yourself, but you'll develop your skills for whatever career you are pursuing as well.
It was recently announced that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be on the cover of TIME magazine come Monday morning. While I think it’s a bit odd that a black athlete who makes more money in a year than most Americans of any color will see in a lifetime, was raised by loving white parents, and lives in a country that overwhelmingly elected an African American president—twice—is taking a stand, or a knee, against...racism (I guess?), he certainly can use his voice, or his knees, however he wishes. But I wonder if there’s a comparison to be made that could bring some clarity to this topic.
What if TIME made a split cover with Kaepernick and William Harvey Carney?
Wait, you’ve never heard of him? Well, he's not on Twitter. Carney was born a slave in Virginia in 1840 and eventually became a free man in Massachusetts, where at age 23, he joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and fought for the North in the Civil War.
In battle at Fort Wagner in South Carolina, members of the color guard were killed, so he rushed forward and picked up the American flag. As he marched into danger, he was shot twice and almost died of blood loss. With terrible wounds, he crawled up the fort and planted the flag, holding it tightly until he was finally carried away to receive medical attention. When fellow soldiers reached him, he said proudly, "Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!"
His actions in battle and respect for the flag inspired other black soldiers and enlightened the minds of whites, who were skeptical that blacks could perform well in battle. For his bravery and devotion, Carney became the first African American recipient of the Medal of Honor, the highest honor anyone can receive for military bravery.
His official citation reads, “When the color sergeant was shot down, this soldier grasped the flag, led the way to the parapet, and planted the colors thereon. When the troops fell back he brought off the flag, under a fierce fire in which he was twice severely wounded.”
Imagine the distinction. A man born into the worst condition humanity endured chose to defend the very country that previously enslaved him because he valued the ultimate cause of America. And he did so by honoring our flag. If anyone had a right to criticize the flag and what it represented at the time, it was Carney and those African Americans like him. Yet, he summoned the bravery to honor a nation that bled to change its course.
Colin Kaepernick is, by most accounts, a fine person with a valuable message. But let’s not pretend his is the only one worth hearing. Let’s also remember those others that have also fought for change. And some of them did so without a Twitter account and $114,000,000 contract.
It’s common for films that are remakes of originals to update material for an audience with 21st century sensibilities, with more timely themes, story additions or subtractions, and certainly stylistic camerawork or special effects. We’ve seen it in the science fiction and superhero genres most overtly in recent years, but it seems westerns have been able to largely avoid such overhauls, as remade films like True Grit (2010) and 3:10 to Yuma (2007) have been quite successful in sticking to their forebears. But the new version of The Magnificent Seven couldn’t quite resist making some noticeable changes from the original 1960 film, and while some aspects of this release show a marked improvement, the film tends to stray from its conventions and often looks as clumsy as a whiskey-soaked wrangler.
The new version never quite pulls off the epic look of most westerns, as director Antoine Fuqua has crafted a visual layout that looks like a simple film set. While there is an attempt at some sweeping landscape shots, the desolate, rugged, and isolated quality that imbues most westerns is mostly lost here. This feels like a movie, and everything will be precisely staged for it. The cast reflects such staging. This film has joined the “one of everybody” approach to casting, so often found in today’s commercials (see most children's retail store ads) and large ensemble films (see the Ocean’s films, the recent Star Wars installment, or many others) in which the filmmakers are sure to include a healthy amount of diversity to keep everyone satisfied. The original was a fairly bland collection of cowboys, and though this revision has an air of pandering, it does work effectively here. Packed with stars and recognizable supporting actors, the film does a great job of allowing each character a chance to breathe, interact with the others, and develop a clear sense of personality and purpose.
Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) is a bounty hunter who is asked by town locals (particularly widowed Emma, played by Haley Bennett) to help them ward off an evil miner, Bart Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who intends to take over the land and evict citizens from the town, or kill them if they don’t cooperate. Chisolm rounds up a band of eccentric characters (played by Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Martin Sensmeier, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) to help him defend the town and get rid of Bogue and his hired crew of corrupt law enforcement officials once and for all. The seven heroes train the citizens to shoot and help build booby-traps to prepare for the battle to come. Chisolm and his men, along with the members of the town, know they may lose their lives in the fight, but they believe protecting one’s home is always worth the cost.
While this premise, defending land, is a staple in the western genre, it is how this new version sets it up that borders on ridiculous in several instances. We are led to believe that the townsfolk don’t know anything about guns and have to be instructed on simply how to hold one. The original was based on protecting a Mexican village of mostly farmers. The updated film wants us to think that Americans living in the west in 1879 don’t know which end a bullet comes out. Even children of the time would’ve been experienced with guns, for hunting primarily and self-defense secondarily, just as young people living on ranches in western states today certainly do. And the reason for the town’s panic has been noticeably revised, seemingly to address today’s political and economic conflicts. The 1960 film’s antagonists were a simple thief and his bandits who stole from the town’s stock of food and materials. Bogue, however, is intended to be much more sinister than a common criminal—he’s a mean businessman, and that’s the worst kind of villain these days. Yes, he is a horrible person who murders innocents and intends to confiscate others’ property, but his silly speech at a town meeting in a church at the beginning of the film, in which he claims he is just a capitalist, and after all, capitalism is part of democracy—it’s just America, you see—actually diminishes his ability to be taken seriously. We end up fearing him because he’s crazy, not because he has a recognizable ethos. This scene turns him into a cartoon rather than a worthy opponent.
The film is further muddied by the fact that it seems to follow the trend in superhero films of destroying everything in sight. As long as the bad guys are gone, it doesn’t matter that dozens on your side are dead and every stick of property you own is demolished. The final shootout is exciting, but chaotic, as the viewer will constantly be wondering where everyone in the scene is actually located. And it plays to one of the worst aspects of western films (aside from Unforgiven) throughout history—good guys kill everyone with one shot, and bad guys miss a lot. And when one of the seven gets hit, he is able to valiantly fight on, but not so much for those pesky, faceless bad guys. True, there is always a sense in westerns that everything will turn out okay, heroes will win, girls will be gotten, villains will be vanquished. But when we can see those conclusions from miles away, the tension of the story is lost, and characters, however likable they may be, just don’t stay with us after they ride into the sunset.
Despite some of these drawbacks, the film is mostly entertaining, and it’s an improvement from the plodding and lackluster original (yes, I know it’s one of the most famous films ever, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed). And the chemistry among the seven is great. Hawke particularly stands out, and his rekindled relationship with Washington since 2001’s Training Day is nicely drawn. Pratt continues to prove that he will be Harrison Ford 2.0—charming, handsome, funny, and an action star that both men and women love watching. And Washington is effective as the leader of the crew. As perhaps the last true movie star, it is nice to see him in a different genre.
If you are looking for a gritty western with complex themes and conflicted characters, The Magnificent Seven certainly is not it. But if you are willing to sit through the barrage of bullets and bodies, and are interested in witty banter and lots of Eastwood-esque squints into the sunlight, then you may have a good time. It is not a terrible movie, but it's not magnificent either.
I had a movie review prepared for today, but after some sad news spread across the airwaves last night, that will be pushed to Wednesday. Yesterday, one of the world's most famous people passed away at the age of 87. But it wasn't Arnold Palmer's fame that people loved; it was that he seemed so normal. What an odd and refreshing thing to say about the most influential athlete in modern history.
For those of you who may not be golf fans, here is a little perspective. Rory McIlroy just won over ten million dollars yesterday--that's right, in one day. Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth are the two best and most recognizable golfers in America at the moment. And dozens of other players from other countries routinely earn millions per year playing in tournaments around the globe. And none of that would be possible without Arnold Palmer. Furthermore, iconic sponsored athletes like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, and others would not exist without Arnold Palmer. No athlete had a bigger influence on sport, business, and popular culture than Arnold Palmer.
But that's not still not why he is remembered. Yes, he was a great athlete with countless victories in one of the most difficult sports. Yes, he was the first athlete to become an advertising brand. But he was also perhaps the most generous athlete in history. He gave tens of millions of dollars to hospitals, which have saved thousands of children's lives. He formed a scholarship at his alma mater, Wake Forest University, that helped countless young people get their college education. He donated exorbitant amounts of time and money helping prostate cancer patients. And every person who has ever met him has appreciated how he looked everyone in the eye, spoke warmly, never hurried away because he's too important, and always signed his name so the receiver can read it. Making each person he met feel special was his greatest gift.
Imagine compiling the names of every person you've ever met--probably several thousand people. Now imagine that every single person on that list only had nice things to say about you. Is that even possible? We all have ticked off somebody, right? But Arnold Palmer met millions of people around the world in his 87 years, and no one has ever had a negative thing to say. Never. He is perhaps the most respected--not just beloved--athlete in history. Imagine having everyone you've ever met say, "My world was made markedly better by meeting you." That's the feeling Arnold Palmer brought out in others.
In our hyper-media, ultra-technological world in which all celebrities have their name and face and voice on display, begging others to notice them, Arnold Palmer quietly, humbly, and gracefully uplifted others. No sex scandals, gambling addictions, or trips to rehab. No infidelities or domestic abuse charges. No YouTube videos of drunken outbursts or illicit behavior. Nothing that would land him on TMZ or E! News. What an incredible lesson for our society today: you can become the most famous and richest person in the history of your profession, and you can do so by simply being responsible for yourself and kind to others.
He didn't smile for selfies; he smiled at the pleasure of his game and his fans. His enormous rugged hands didn't pound his own chest; they reached out to serve others. And he didn't use his voice for trash talking or feuding with competitors; he spoke for regular people, with positivity and inspiration.
If you are a young athlete, or are the parent or coach of a young athlete, please watch the Golf Channel documentary Arnie that will surely be running this week. It is a great three-part film that demonstrates what it means to not only be an incredible sports star, but more importantly, an incredible man. Arnold Palmer has been and will continue to be the standard for being gentlemanly. There is no one else like him, and he will be missed.
I just finished reading a new book by acclaimed author Tom Wolfe, titled The Kingdom of Speech. This time Wolfe isn’t offering cutting social commentary in a behemoth novel; rather, he explicates the debate on human language in under 170 pages and with a breezy blend of witticisms and hard data. The book, as a whole, is not particularly great, but there are a few excellent segments.
The first half lays the groundwork that evolutionary theory explains the development of language among humans, but not among other animals. While everyone knows animals do communicate with each other, they do not have the complex linguistic structures of humans. This is perhaps the defining quality of what makes us...us. But a reader may skip much of the sections on Darwinism and still get the gist, as the background is not really that interesting. However, the book takes an intriguing turn at the midway point and the introduction of Noam Chomsky, world renowned MIT linguist and one of the most cited academics in history. Chomsky believes that language stems from a specific component in the brain, that humans became hardwired to develop language through evolutionary and biological processes. All humans possess a “universal grammar,” he claims, in which everyone, no matter the language being spoken, follows some essential rules of communication. And this hypothesis became the standard explanation for human language for decades.
Like most academics, however, Chomsky never did any field work to investigate his theory. So when another linguist discovered a tribe in a remote South American jungle, in which its members had virtually no concept of human language, the debate went into high speed. Wolfe describes the myriad scholarly publications and personal attacks that ensued, and nothing is funnier than seeing really smart people get into fights about obscure research.
The book’s conclusion, though, holds perhaps the most important message to be gleaned from this study. Wolfe describes how language is a man-made tool. It is an invention, not a result of evolution or a location in the brain. It became necessary, so it came into being through human initiative. And language changed the course of time and history. Language creates ideas, a sense of history and future, a social structure, a purpose for existence. Language is not the defining quality of humans because we luckily evolved that way, Wolfe posits. Language defines humanity because without it, our world could almost not exist. As you read about the benighted Piraha tribe, you’ll see exactly what lack of language does to people.
The last few pages are a brilliant summary of why language matters, and I encourage English teachers and students especially to take a look. As I said, the book can be skimmed in places, but the conclusion will rock your perspective on human culture and communication.
I was casually reading some Ralph Waldo Emerson the other day, as we nerdy English people are wont to do from time to time, and I was reminded of a great quote: "It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude." This is a valuable idea for today's students to ponder.
Why do we believe what we believe and do what we do? Is it because that's what others are participating in? Conversely, is it because we want to show how unique we are by separating ourselves from others? Emerson says those ways are too easy. There's no challenge, no clarity, in mindlessly going along with everyone else or stubbornly isolating ourselves.
Emerson is actually saying that greatness can only be achieved by interacting with all sorts of people and ideas, to learn and explore, to engage and dialogue--to participate in the world. Yet, he also says there is a strength that is developed by thinking and acting independently, to not be beholden to the whims of others, but to exercise our own judgment and values.
We don't learn by following the herds of trendiness or by living on an island. We must reach our own conclusions only after careful evaluation and then self-reflection. That will be a key to greatness for many students this new school year.
I love In-N-Out Burger. My apologies to anyone who doesn't live in the Southwest, but you are missing out. I eat there as often as I can, but not just because they have delicious burgers. I love their employees. Every time I'm there, the cashiers are smiling, the cooks are hustling, and anyone who has a spare second quickly goes to the dining area to sweep the floor, wipe a table, or assist a customer. The (mostly) young people who work there are awesome. The two locations nearest my house in Scottsdale are top-notch, and I would assume other stores throughout the West are similarly exceptional.
I was in there yesterday, ordering my standard 3x3, and I saw this flyer:
That's weird, I thought to myself. Fast food restaurants are supposed to be corporate sweatshops, stomping on the faces of poor people and keeping them in varying degrees of poverty with their low wages and exploitative capitalistic practices. Doesn't In-N-Out know they are supposed to be evil to employees? Don't they know the Arizona minimum wage is only $8.05? Aren't they throwing money away? What kind of moronic business is this?
Of course, anyone with a brain, which excludes most people who work in politics or news media these days, knows that hardly any company actually pays the minimum wage (it's usually only about 5% of employees that are paid that rate), and that companies choose to pay more in order to entice better workers to join. In-N-Out pays especially well because they seem to require some extra skills that other fast food joints perhaps do not. Nothing against those other restaurants (I eat at those just as regularly), but it's common to see employees at those stores standing around wasting time, unclean dining areas, cashiers who don't have a clear grasp of English, and miserable people who clearly don't enjoy their jobs. I've never once, in 12 years living in the Valley, seen any of these behaviors at In-N-Out. The company demands more, so it pays accordingly. And it didn't need arbitrary government legislation to force them to raise wages.
Since minimum wage is a common topic of discussion among high school and college students, let this be a reminder for those that think companies are big meanies and they deserve to paid more, regardless of their skills or experience. Better paying jobs are out there. But you will probably have to work a little harder for those few extra dollars. If you feel you aren't being paid enough, the market is probably giving you a pretty clear signal: you don't deserve more--yet. If you want more, you may have to smile, you may have to hustle, you may have to touch icky things. But that's where the money is, and I'm glad for those ambitious young people at In-N-Out who have learned that valuable life lesson. Keep up the good work, In-N-Out employees. I respect you just as much as your delicious burgers.
Jimmy Fallon's twitter feed blew up this week with #MyTeacherIsWeird. Take a look, have a laugh, and enjoy the weekend.
One of my favorite films of the last few years is Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. It's an excellent exploration into today's media culture and how social narratives can be shaped through journalism and television. And it offers a cleverly complicated take on how entrepreneurship and morality are in constant struggle. Gilroy's script was nominated for an Oscar, and this latest video from the Lessons from the Screenplay YouTube channel dives into how he was able to make the film's protagonist such a admirably psychopathic character. Enjoy!
For those students out there that constantly decry the yearly rise in tuition, here's one major reason. Brown University students recently fought for free tampons to be placed in all restrooms on campus, and not just women's or gender-integrated restrooms-- this policy includes men's restrooms. USA Today reported over the weekend that "The decision to provide these products follows a student-led effort that argued that tampons and pads are essential, not a luxury."
The students claim that tampons should be treated like toilet paper, as a necessary part of hygienic restroom use. And many students don't have the financial resources to purchase their own. This may not be the worst idea ever conceived for serving female students (though my wife was appalled and said, "They should just buy their own!"), but it does beg the question, "what else could be considered essential?"
I went to school in the Midwest, where brutally cold winters face students each morning for months on end. If a student can't afford to purchase tampons, surely a coat is even more problematic. If a heavy coat in order to trudge across campus in the snow and wind is a necessity, should the school provide parkas for all students?
I've also worked on enormous campuses, where it's pretty much impossible to get from one side to the other in time for the next class. Since students (and teachers!) need to be on time for their classes, should the school provide free bicycles, skateboards, trolleys, golf carts, and the like? I'd love to be chauffeured around!
What about food? Obviously, we can't have students dying of starvation on our campuses. Since food is a clear necessity, shouldn't the school provide free dining? No more meal plans as part of that expensive room and board, right?
Since we are talking about school after all, most classes use some form of a textbook. Those are certainly a necessity in order to maximize learning, so perhaps those should be free as well. Should students have their books covered by the school?
Even if you answer yes to all these questions, and endorse the tampon provision at Brown University, the ultimate question remains: how does this get paid for? The answer that kids don't want to hear, but need to, is they do. With every new program, with every new Center for blah-blah-blah, with every new facility, with every new hygiene product that a campus offers, the students will end up paying for it in their tuition dollars.
Perhaps the most discriminatory part of this story is that male tuitions will rise to accommodate the females, despite never needing to use the product they are paying for. Imagine if someone told the women on campus they would be forced to pay for something only those with male anatomy and chromosomes will use.
While students certainly have a right to make requests to their university and deserve to have their voices heard, they must also be properly educated in how they are affecting their own tuition payments. Next time you hear someone complain about how expensive college is getting these days, just tell them you sympathize with their concern--and offer them a tampon.
A sad, but not so surprising statistic appeared in the Washington Post this week. "The long, steady decline of literary reading" reports that the reading of classic literature (novels, plays, poems, short fiction) among adults is at a 30-year low, according to research by the National Endowment for the Arts. The research also breaks down who is reading the most and who is reading the least. White women with college degrees seem to be the most literary group, but the numbers don't look good for anybody.
We all know that there are many more opportunities for entertainment and distraction now than in previous generations, so the data make sense. But we also have many more highly educated citizens than ever before, and that isn't necessarily correlating with an increase in literary reading. This fact speaks to the larger problem.
It shows we aren't using the education we have to tackle the challenging ideas and deeper human complexities that literature can offer. The literary arts make us smarter thinkers and better feelers. We improve our capacity to think through scenarios, as well as identify with and become more empathetic toward a wide variety of people.
Our current generation of students claims to be the most tolerant in history, yet many of them haven't developed, because of the decline in reading, the mental and emotional skills to be truly understanding of humanity. We have become faux-sympathizers, claiming a non-judgmental worldview, while avoiding the very tools that give us the qualifications to discern what is worthy of judgment.
Again, this report may not exactly be shocking news in our era of constantly available technology and media, but this should startle us into considering what kind of society we may be becoming. Reading may not change the world anymore, as it did in previous historical eras, but it can change each person individually. And that is the best place to start. Go pick up a book this weekend, and develop a positive habit of engaging with more literary reading.
Lindsey Vonn is an Olympic gold medal-winning skier and a tremendous athlete. But as we learned from NBC's Running Wild with Bear Grylls this week, she's a nightmare if she's not in her element. As Bear tried to teach her some survival skills along the Corsican coast, Vonn's unpleasant personality shone through. Her arrogance and stubbornness have helped her become a champion in one specific area of life, but it can be a huge liability when trying to learn something new.
From the moment they arrived on the rocky shore, Vonn snipped at Bear, "Don't help me!" While she was trying so hard to prove her mettle by ignoring Bear's outstretched hand on the slippery rocks, she promptly fell right back in the water. Bear quickly realized the handful of a student he had taken on. He politely abided her wishes and gave little instruction during their excursion. But whenever Vonn got herself into trouble, she instantly started complaining. During one delicate descent down a cliff, Vonn wailed in despair as she struggled, then blamed Bear for the difficulty. In a brilliant aside to the camera, while holding onto Vonn from up the cliff face, Bear said, "When some people face hard times, they first start blaming the person at the other end of the rope."
This episode was an excellent analogy for students at school. Many students try to show how smart they are or how wrong they think the teacher is. They think school is a competition to look good; they don't realize success at school is a team effort. These students, who may be highly skilled, are actually just as difficult to deal with as students with hardly any skills. While lower-level students need constant attention to improve beyond the basics, higher achieving students with an obstinate mindset often need similar constant attention to correct all the mistakes they think are correct.
If you are a student beginning this new school year, remember that your teachers are there to help you. Like Bear Grylls, your teachers can be a guide through the academic wilderness. Don't pretend to be smarter than you are, thinking that it will impress them. It will only make them back away, so they can watch you struggle on your own. And that will be a tremendous waste of time for everyone involved. Your teachers are at the other end of your academic rope, holding on and trying to keep you safe. Don't fight them, and don't blame them. Vonn thought she was competing against Bear, rather than working with him. And it only revealed her own foolishness. In case you missed the episode, go check it out on OnDemand. Students can learn two important lessons from the show: seek out teachers like Bear Grylls; and never get stranded anywhere with Lindsey Vonn.
Many students and teachers alike are stuck in their twenty-first century mindset, and we don't often reflect upon the ideas and practices from history that have led us to this point. This forgetfulness obscures us from the great lessons we can learn from Shakespeare and other influential artists and thinkers from previous eras. Take a look a this interesting piece from a few days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Some things to think about for your incoming students this year...
The incredible comic actor Gene Wilder passed away this week at the age of 83. Since the late 1960s, few others could combine deadpan wit and neurotic kookiness to create such memorable characters as Willy Wonka, Dr. Frankenstein, the Waco Kid, and Leopold Bloom along with countless classic films. His timing and delivery were unsurpassed, as seen in this great compilation, and he brilliantly played the straight man in what I consider to be the funniest scene in film history. He even took part in one of literature's more renowned works, Death of a Salesman, playing young Bernard in an excellent televised version of the play in 1966. (This is, I believe, the best version and the one I show to students in classes.) While there are many to choose from, you can't do much better than this segment from Blazing Saddles to see the quirky brilliance of Wilder. Be sure to check out his work in remembrance.
Sometimes teaching literature to college students can get a bit redundant, or there may be the sense that the experience of reading great texts is getting lost on young people only looking for grades. One teacher recently decided to do something about that.
Mikita Brottman took her sabbatical from university teaching to hold a book club...for men...in prison. She wanted to see what themes prisoners would identify with or if they would offer her any new insights on literature based on their unique experiences. She describes some of her results in a short interview that can be heard here, as well as in a new book, titled The Maximum Security Book Club. I have already picked up my copy from the library and look forward to diving into how she attempted to teach Macbeth, Heart of Darkness, and Lolita to convicted felons.
I love the idea of bringing literature to people who may not traditionally be exposed to it. Has anyone out there ever done anything similar? I'd love to borrow your ideas.
Last night was the season 1 finale of the excellent HBO series The Night Of. Following in the footsteps of investigation and trial shows like Law & Order, but with the depth, diversity of characters, and long-form narrative of The Wire, The Night Of has been a gritty look into race, crime, the court and prison system, and what happens when all evidence points to a suspect that just might not be guilty.
With superb performances from John Turturro, Riz Ahmed, Michael K. Williams, Bill Camp, Jeannie Berlin, Amara Karan, and others over the show's eight episodes, the series has been near pitch perfect in its examination of a criminal investigation from all parties involved. With delicacy and patience, the series has delved deeply into each main character, while never allowing us to fully know any of them--they all have doubts about their respective places in this world. Ahmed, as Nasir Khan, the primary suspect in a brutal murder, undergoes the most dramatic change. We meet him as a shy college student, and by the end, he has evolved into a dope-running quasi-gangster inside Rikers Island prison. This transformation is part of the not-so-subtle message of the show: that prison actually creates more criminals rather than punishing existing ones.
Most of the series is written by renowned novelist Richard Price and directed by Oscar-winner Steve Zaillian, and each episode has been expertly crafted. Turturro's John Stone is the highlight of the series, and will likely be nominated come awards season for his twitchy portrayal of a psoriasis-stricken, skeezy lawyer with a (sort of) heart of gold. His closing argument in the finale is brilliantly executed. The final episode does resolve the case somewhat, but something tells me this won't be the end of it. I haven't heard definitively if there will be a season 2, but the narrative clearly leaves that option open.
If you are interested in a great crime/legal drama, you won't find anything better on television than The Night Of. Check it out on HBO Go to catch up.
Dr. Spivey is a college English professor and lives in Scottsdale, Arizona.